Bowling Alone

A Harvard grad’s self-published status

The village people are untouchable, and not just as outmoded icons of American popular culture. The Japanese word burakumin literally translates as “village people”—and the burakumin are outcasts in Japanese society. Discriminated against since the 15th century, the burakumin were undertakers and public executioners, and some still work in trades considered impure in Buddhism and Shinto. Though some measures have tried to recompense for past isolation, a rift between burakumin and the rest of society exists even today.

In her second novel, Sazzae, Jocelyn Morin ’87 writes of Shintaro, a young buraku man turned pop star. Her focus on the untouchables of Japanese culture interestingly echoes her own position as an author—Morin’s novel is self-published, and there is no greater outcast in the literary world than the self-published writer. Certainly, it is unusual for The Crimson to review a book printed by iUniverse.com, which sends to press virtually any manuscript for a tiny fee. Without a doubt, the only reason it is here is because the author is a graduate of Harvard.

However, the book is worth a pause: Although Sazzae lacks the polished packaging of more traditional channels, although the narrative is at times unclear and difficult to follow, although the language can descend into convolution, this is not a bad book.

At her best, Morin captures the atmosphere of contemporary Tokyo and enlightens with the plight of the burakumin. She thoroughly intertwines the tales of three dynamic characters—Lois, a Harvard-educated painter, Shintaro, the buraku, and a stockbroker usually known as Max or Jack. She deftly uncovers the seediness of the cosmopolitan gaijin (foreigner) world of nightclubs and gin-and-tonics, blackmail and insider trading. Her most delightful descriptions are of these underworld dealings and of the intrigues in the personal lives of the protagonists, each of whom loves the one member of the trio who doesn’t love him or her in return.

Most of the book, however, is not of this high caliber. Morin’s failure is most pronounced in the scenes in which Lois works on an abstract painting of a woman in white, an imperfect black square named Max and a garden. The triangular symbolism in her painting works too hard to imitate her life. Similarly, a subplot involving Maximilian, the Austrian Emperor of Mexico, and his white-clad queen is completely extraneous. The little history lesson could hardly be more boring or less relevant.

The stigma attached to the burakumin in Japanese society is inexcusable. It is easier to understand why self-published authors often don’t get the respect they desire. Although Sazzae doesn’t quite attain its literary aspirations, it does show that not all writers with potential reach their audience through the mainstream process. If Sazzae had been squeezed by the pressure of that process, the writing would likely be much tighter and more consistent. Morin surely has talent, but there is something to be said for jumping through all the normal hoops.