#63: STRANGERS IN SOME VERY STRANGE LANDS. When it comes to the British boarding school, one would have thought that George Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys” (the opening volley in his COLLECTION OF ESSAYS) was just about the last pin anybody had to put into THAT balloon. Exact, pungent and hilarious, it’s an awe-inspiringly clean shot that takes down any Thomas Hughes or James Hilton sentimentality you might have been harboring, with his essay on “Boy’s Weeklies” and their stereotyping of school life as a needle-sharp postscript to finish the job. But right from its startling first sentence, Paul Watkins’s STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD: An American Schoolboy in England (Random House, 1994) proves itself a more-than-honorable title in this overpopulated field. Born of a Welsh family in Rhode Island, Watkins was sent to the Dragon prep school in Oxford and then to Eton, bringing with him a suitcase, a stuffed bear with a bell in its ear, and absolutely no idea of the Carrollian world he had been dropped into. This makes it merely an exaggerated version of the everyday, horrible comedy we all live through in childhood, and the first half of the book, at the Dragon school, is a masterpiece mixture of perfect recall and the peculiar rueful surrealism of its topic. As he goes on to Eton, the tone sobers and deepens—mistakes cut more deeply, the paths darken; we may miss the comedy, but for its honesty and confessing, it’s a decent trade. By the time Watkins uses the title of the book for a zeroing-in—and I’m not going to quote that line either—he’s brought you back into the tyranny of adolescence and illuminates it as only the best novelists and memoirists do. It’s a terrific book, and much too little known.
On the other hand, we all know people who have become enamored of foreign cultures—we may well have done so ourselves. The affections are often idealistic—hunting in foreign cultures for virtues lacking in our own. In JAPANLAND: A Year in Search of Wa (Rodale), documentary-maker Karin Muller went looking to crack the mystery of Japan, going at it as if Japan were the Marabar Caves in Forster’s PASSAGE TO INDIA. Normally we know where that story is going: many quandaries and frustrations, ending in reconciliation and clarity, including the moment when the young soldier realizes that the tough-talking DI has a heart of gold and is doing all that nasty stuff For His Good. But whereas India, I suspect, is chaos—a riot of nonsequential elements and colors, with no central line to its history—Japan, once characterized to me by a friend as “an entire country on the same drug,” in Muller’s book begins to seem like a straight line that simply goes on forever, without end—or entry point. With its hierarchy, sexism, house-pride, corporatism and endless lubrication of submission and alcohol, it also seems like a hypertrophied version of the American nineteen-fifties—the decade no one wants to revisit. And when, early in her visit, Muller meets her DI—not one of her sponsors or judo teachers, but the mother of her host-family, Yukiko—she raises a spirit bigger than the book can quell. No matter how Muller seeks to present things from Yukiko’s point of view, she comes across as a monstrous blend of Mrs. Miniver and J.K. Rowling’s Professor Umbridge—an emotional and social miser absolutely convinced of her own correctness, who haunts the book like a night-flying animal. Like Paul Watkins’s book, Muller’s JAPANLAND is fun to read because Muller is undeniably a writer—her language balloons wonderfully around the situations of being a stranger in a very, very strange land. But it also suggests that the distance between the crowded-island hierarchies of Japan and the messy pluralism of America are not easily, if ever, bridged. As a travel book for Japan, it’s a bit like using “Boys Don’t Cry” as a tourist come-on for a visit to Nebraska. Enjoy—but beware.