In the Empire of Dreams
JACK KEROUAC KNEW this much: There's instant drama in the travel story. Take a drab office drone (or, if you like, a predictably jaded Uptown hipster) and put him in a foreign country for a month. Chances are good he'll have something interesting to say when he gets back--about the clothes, at least, or the customs, about what he ate, or what he ate it with. Yet if transglobal culture shock can genuinely open a person's eyes to the diverse cuts of the human fabric, it can also serve as a distraction from the often difficult questions of our desire and purpose in the same way that dining at the Rainforest Cafe relieves patrons of the burden of making conversation.
An example of this dynamic appears in Dianne Highbridge's second novel, In the Empire of Dreams, which loosely intertwines the lives of a handful of Western expatriates in Tokyo. Granted, Highbridge writes in a lilting yet insistent prose that is a sharp match to the constant undercurrents of anxiety and bemusement the gaijin feel as they witness subway suicides or silver-garbed firemen who resemble samurai. But the more intimate concerns of motivation--Why are these people in Tokyo? What are they hoping to learn?--go largely unasked.
In part, the book's structure is to blame. Although Empire can arguably be said to center on three female academics, almost half of the book deals with secondary and tertiary characters who barely enter the trio's orbit. Too often, the book feels like a novella with short stories stuffed crudely into it, losing momentum every time it switches protagonists.
As it stands, the novel's sharpest moments don't come from the actions of the characters themselves, but from what they passively observe. One teacher sees a crowd of Japanese teenagers as "boys and girls with ears pierced several times over, black hair bleached to the colour of clay"; a visiting businessman feels an unexpected erotic shock when he witnesses an off-duty geisha feed a sugar cube to her companion. By themselves, these moments are enchanting. But juxtaposed with the protagonists' chronic inactivity, they paint the unpleasant image of gaijin wasting their chance for self-discovery, too entranced by their surroundings to do anything but collect mental pictures to tell the readers--er, the folks--back home.