Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Japan: The Curved Jewels by Tom Bradley
by Cye Johan


Donald Richie, the world's number-one Old Japan Hand, is famous for reviewing positively every new book about his adopted country, or at least causing his underlings at The Japan Times to do so. But a few weeks ago he ducked an incoming. Richie maintains a small library at the national English-language daily where review copies are proudly displayed; but this particular item was such dynamite that he would not allow it to remain on  the premises -- this in spite of the masthead motto of The Japan Times: "All the News Without Fear or Favor."
Returning the book to the author, Mr. Richie wrote, "You wanted to write a controversial work, and you have... I doubt you'll ever get it reviewed in Japan."
What's so scary about Tom Bradley's THE CURVED JEWELS? It depicts affairs in the imperial household as less than rosy, that's what. Even if the story restricted itself to the level of light palace farce, with naughty retainers
yawning at their posts, and peers exhibiting the occasional pursed flatulence, the mere presumption of intruding the eye of fiction upon the Holy Family in Tokyo would be enough to get a samurai-style fatwa declared on the author's head.
THE CURVED JEWELS goes much further than that. It tells about an outright escape by the Crown Princess, who is, with good reason, revolted by her husband.
Even though the latter's grandfather undeified himself on the radio quite a while ago, he and his male issue yet retain a substantial and powerful number of fanatical worshippers who respond murderously, preferably with swords and knives, to blasphemy and sacrilege. And THE CURVED JEWELS is full of that sort of thing. It takes us deep into the very heart of the Shinto state religion, straight to the sacrosanct Chamber of the Royal Regalia. There it defecates copiously and with panache, if that's possible.
 Listen, for example, to Chica, the American hooker who helps the heroine slip away from her royal retainers. She gives some older-sisterly advice on marital relations:
"Girlfriend, if you thought international finance was boring, wait till you get into the sack with the tiny one... Maybe some night between the sheets you can persuade the Crown Prince to disembowel himself. Considering what his grandfather did to the rest of East Asia, it's the only honorable thing he can do with the rest of his life. That's according to their own ethical code."
Make no mistake: this kind of thing gets people killed in Japan. The mayor of Nagasaki was shot for less.
So, into such a delicately balanced milieu swaggers this gigantic, blabbermouthed, multiple award-winning American novelist. Tom Bradley comes traipsing into Japan directly from being thrown out of China for infuriating the power structure there with similar high jinks (see his novel BLACK CLASS CUR, and his Salon article, "The Bathtub Revolutionary").
Salman Rushdie had the common sense not to be in-country when yanking the cat's whiskers. Bradley, on the other hand, just last Columbus Day, from his place of exile on an obscure Japanese island, announced to an audience of about 175,000 his intention to become the next poster boy for Freedom of the Press.
This vast indiscretion was committed live, during the webcast of a global conference on the future of cyber-communications, hosted by none other than Vint Cerf himself, Father of the Internet. Incredibly enough, our author somehow managed to wangle from the brilliant Mr. Cerf an invitation to represent the archipelago of Hirohito in this region-by-region, round-the-world, multimedia techno-extravaganza. Bradley took advantage of that formidable pulpit to stray completely off-topic and brashly beard the people who, during World War Two, without the aid of advanced technology, sliced and diced millions of civilians, helpless and unarmed, not unlike Bradley himself.
Despite this megalomaniacal urge for public self-annihilation, which the present reviewer finds a bit unsettling -- or, indeed, perhaps because of his unwholesome Christ complex -- Tom Bradley has turned out a marvelous novel, a splendid fifth volume to cap off his astounding SAM EDWINE PENTATEUCH.
It is nearly impossible for fiction with such emphatic topical interest to rise above it and achieve any semblance of universality; but Bradley has given us the very portrait of womanhood striving for freedom in the person of the brilliant polyglot princess. THE CURVED JEWELS blurs expertly the line between roman-a-clef and pure fiction. We follow the progress of this suffering soul from her retirement into the cave of despair, to her ecstatically numinous emancipation in a very surprising affirmation of everything the book has been subverting all along.
Here's the strange old Head Chamberlain of the Board of Ceremonies describing to the princess the theophany that will result when she embraces her destiny as the latest reincarnation of the Sun Goddess:
"Most fortunate Empress-to-be!...stop pouting and welcome this mighty new apotheosis of yours! Hug it tight with all four youthful limbs!...I can say this to you without
qualification...You are, quite precisely, the only woman on earth to whom genuine numinosity is still available. You are the embodiment of the last true religion.
"An economical three-color print of your benevolent face will more than fill any vacancy left by a VCR. The strains of the devout chanting your name in the corner shrine will drown out, once and for all, the profane stridor of the karaoke taverns...
"...when our humble and comely folk look up, who will be there to meet their gaze? They will behold none other than their own Princess, hovering at the eastern brink with, ah!, bright wings! Smooth and numinous in her Heian silks, gentle and soft-spoken in her persona, she shall glow with renewal in the old ways!"
And here is the woman's auto-theophany--
"...she dreamed a megalomaniacal dream... She was the sun, with earthly and heavenly omnipotence bristling from each of her pores like excess body heat, though immeasurable. The treetops beneath her feet cast shadows that radiated outward from her glorious center-point, while balding creatures cowered and quaked behind the trunks of those trees and cupped their hands over their groins in shame..."
Bradley is one of those rare authors whose honesty runs so deep that his characters often take over their sections of the novels and prove their creator wrong, if not wrong-headed. The ending is simultaneously tawdry and glorious, with equal weight given to either perspective by Bradley's virtuosic and uncannily self-effacing narrative technique.
This and the other east Asian volumes of THE SAM EDWINE PENTATEUCH provide a welcome antidote to the works of those would-be Orientalists: hermaphroditic Lafcadio Hearn-like creatures who attempt to scribble their way into a geisha's knickers, if she wears any; and those women who, from the safety of California, write tales of their grandmas' agonies in the Cultural Revolution, meanwhile exhibiting a mastery of their presumably ancestral tongue which is is questionable at best. Desiring to assimilate themselves gently among the eastern people in the forlorn hope of being at one with them, these cultural mutants wind up writing books that go no deeper than the various Asiatic gerontocracies would want them to go.
Bradley's fictional alter-ego, Sam Edwine, on the other hand, is the truly uprooted man, occidental to the core. He is proud that his ears are "virginal of the lingos of General Toe-Jam and Mousey Dung." He stumbles around in THE CURVED JEWELS like Lemuel Gulliver through a particularly unpleasant Lilliput, surrounded by--
"...uncounted hundreds of thousands of styrofoam incinerators that simmer hot dioxins all across this quadrant of the North Pacific every day and night. Many of them are tucked under classroom windows and near children's recreational facilities; all are perfectly unregulated. Most are tended, or at least ignited, by native men whose masculinity is mollified by the use of fancy cigarette lighters which they pull from their front trouser pockets."
What if Donald Richie and his handlers at the non-scandal sheet had mustered not only the guts, but the literary conscience, to give Bradley's incredible novel the notice it deserves? The most they could've expected would be one or two gigantic black sound trucks obstructing traffic in front of their building, blaring far-rightist martial music at sadistic levels of volume. At the very worst, the editor-in-chief's face might have been slashed a tad by a Yakuza hireling's razor in the parking lot after work. But The Japan Times and collaborator Richie took the safe route of acquiescent Zen silence. They obediently demurred, and did their bit in attempting to silence the perpetrator of this beatific blasphemy. (One is reminded of Xerxes' efforts to fetter the Hellespont.)
Meanwhile, Bradley himself remains hunkered and bunkered on his "Pacific Patmos," as he calls it in another novel. He continues to sing and shout at the top of his lungs, and risks having his liver bisected at any moment on the street with the shorter version of the samurai sword, the wakizashi, which is used for suicide, and is also concealed about the person for sneak assassinations. Beheadings, random frenzied amputations, and other such military exercises, as in Nanjing, are generally effected with the longer and more illustrious katana blade. (Just a little background on Japanese culture there.)
Fortunately for Mr. Bradley, the English reading ability of most devotees of the emperor is nil. And so far he doesn't seem to have been tempted with any translation deals -- a temptation this hell-raiser could be relied upon never to funk.
Till that apocalyptic moment in publishing history, THE CURVED JEWELS will have to be read in the gorgeously composed original. It's currently available as a single volume, and will soon appear, together with a pair of other Nippophobic Bradley masterpieces, in HUSTLING THE EAST, A DAI NIPPON TRILOGY.
Excerpts of his SAM EDWINE PENTATEUCH (of which THE CURVED JEWELS constitutes the climax), plus reviews, an interview, and a couple hours worth of recorded readings by this mellifluous-voiced novelist (his tones have been compared to Orson Welles'), along with a bizarre and compelling series of technicolor self-portraits (he ends looking like a Rouault Christ), can be found at http://literati.net/Bradley.


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