Since the late 1970s, young Americans have made their way to Japan to teach English, pay off student loans, and generally have a good time. A happy byproduct of this exodus has been the American-in-Japan novel. The comic possibilities of the form are obvious: bumbling foreigner tries to learn the customs of the inscrutable East. In American Fuji, first-time novelist Sara Backer hits all the comic notes, but takes the time to examine the very real allure of living in another culture.
Gaby Stanton, fired from her job as a university professor in provincial Shizuoka, has a gig selling fantasy funerals to the dying Japanese rich. Her job puts her in the path of Alexander Thorn, a middle-aged American who has just arrived in Japan determined to decipher the mystery surrounding the death of his son, an exchange student. The perspective of the novel shifts back and forth between these two characters as Gaby and Alexander stumble on a yakuza ring, unearth medical secrets, and sprout romantic feelings for each other. The two gradually develop a Hepburn-Tracy-style combative relationship. Still, Backer's sympathies clearly lie with Gaby, a thirtysomething woman with health problems who relishes her automatic outsider status in Japan. If everything she does is strange to her host culture, then her illness doesn't matter. But the introduction of Alexander is a wise move, allowing Backer to show us Japan through the perpetually startled eyes of a newcomer.
While the writing sometimes falls short of grace, Backer has an infallible sense of the kind of detail that brings Japan alive. She has no qualms about taking a page to explain how, say, Japanese banking works, and her confidence in her material makes the novel fly. The book is given surprising depth by the two main characters. Both are discontented with their lot, and neither is at all traditionally appealing. (Of Alexander, Backer writes, "He had the face of a man who could win the election, but not this year.") By giving us such warty characters in such an oddball setting, Backer has fashioned a novel with some real staying power. --Claire Dederer