Mami Kaketa never says “sorry”.
The eccentric, wilful, spoilt princess at the beating heart of first-timer Andrew O’Connor’s Tuvalu doesn’t need to.
As she flounces, preens and bullies her way through the novel, our narrator—the young Aussie-abroad Noah Tuttle—can’t seem to take his eyes off her. In spite of Mami’s spates of petulant, juvenile behaviour, Tuttle (and O’Connor) manages to remain completely in awe. We’re treated to rapturous descriptions of her physique (her legs are apparently especially worth seeing) and the sense that somehow she’s the centre of the known universe. For the course of the novel, she probably is.
There’s a certain type of female character that can only be described as a Murakami Woman. For it’s the elliptical, sensual novels of Haruki Murakami that have created a mythology around the kind of volatile, self-involved (and beautiful) heroines that turn men’s lives upside down. Mami Kaketa fits the mould perfectly. Equally, Murakami’s world is populated by emasculated, bored loner men. Men just like Noah Tuttle. While the sensible response to people like Mami would be to run a mile, O’Connor, as with Murakami, suggests that they’re the perfect antidote to impotent inertia.
It’s highly likely that O’Connor has read Murakami’s works (there’s a reference to an unnamed Murakami novel in Tuvalu), particularly Norwegian Wood, the most obvious comparator. This is not to dismiss Tuvalu as a rip-off. Despite some obvious debts to other and some uneven patches, Tuvalu is good. Really good.
As last-year’s winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under-35, Tuvalu has clearly been marked as a stand-out in the current crop. Perhaps this is less because of the usual desirables of literary flair, vivid descriptions and strong pacing (all present and correct) than because of its resonance with a young generation searching for connections.
In a recent review of Tuvalu in The Australian, Debra Adelaide proposed that the definitive Australians-in-Japan novel has now been written and others need not apply. Apparently this is a popular genre amongst Vogel entrants. Certainly, O’Connor has the loneliness and isolation angles well covered.
O’Connor’s story follows our disillusioned hero on a largely inconsequential journey involving the spoilt-rich-girl Mami, his remote and unknowable girlfriend Tilly and a motley band of other misfit Westerners. Tuttle spends his time teaching English (incompetently) and wallowing in existential angst. His life is a lonely one, in spite of the colourful characters in his vicinity, and as he points out, Japan merely provides a rationalisation for the loneliness and isolation he felt at home in Melbourne.
Through Tuttle’s self-imposed exile, O’Connor has captured at least part of the essence of the Western obsession with Japan. The Japan of popular culture (especially Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation) is almost a hyper-West—the illogical endpoint of our cultural fragmentation and techno-obsession. As an outsider in a land of outsiders, Tuttle’s disconnectedness is more natural, if for no other reason than that his environment is so unnatural. Instead of seeking to make his own environment more humane and liveable, Tuttle seems to imagine that what he needs is more isolation, rather than less. Impotence wins again.
The Tuvalu of the title is less about the island nation, although it plays its part in the narrative, than about the idea of an escape that runs through the novel. Tilly holds onto a conception of an island she’s never visited because she needs something to work towards—something beyond the mundane. For all our characters here, escape is a strong motivation: Noah’s mother’s escape from a difficult marriage; Tilly’s escape from overbearing sympathy; Noah’s own escape from a maladjusted past.
It has often been observed by cultural commentators that today’s 20-somethings are more footloose and commitment-phobic than previous eras. While simplistic and reductive, this is often true—largely because the new generations have more options than the older ones. Reality is hard and normal life is full of difficulties. Don’t like it? Well, there’s always somewhere else you can go and try again. Retreat and escape are more readily available than ever before.
Of course this is where a character like Mami Kaketa comes in. Nothing about her life is hard or challenging. She has money, power and men for playthings. Her entire life is an escape—a voyage into the superficial. While she appreciates Tuttle for his honesty and naivety, it’s more than likely he returns the affection for quite opposite reasons.
While an engaging character, for all her myriad faults, Mami Kaketa is also a metaphor for Japan through Western eyes. She offers adventure and spontaneity and requires surprisingly little in the way of emotional attachment. Perhaps she’s not the answer to all our problems, but she’ll make us forget them for a while. What Tuttle is looking for in Japan, he finds in Mami.
In a surprising twist, the reader becomes embroiled in the same elaborate escapist fantasy the characters are acting out. Tuvalu is our Tuvalu—offering the tantalising possibility that there is a country out there (Japan in this case) where anything can and does happen. And magical, exciting girls appear out of the ether to transform us.
Mami Kaketa says she doesn’t want to be anyone’s exotic Japanese fling. But the exhilarating, page-turning Tuvalu is definitely ours.