|Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews|
Ruth L. Ozeki
Picador, Macmillan (July 2003) 316 pages
ISBN: 1 330 49044 3
Meat is the Message. Each weekly half-hourly episode of MY AMERICAN WIFE must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It's the meat (not the Mrs.) who's the star of the show!
--Fax to Tokyo from Jane Takagi-Little.
WARNING: This is not a recipe book. Nor is it one of those books in which the story is seasoned with mouth-watering meals. In fact, if the thought of a nice juicy steak makes you salivate, this book may well spoil your appetite. In spite of that, this is a very funny, very quirky and very entertaining story, and Ruth Ozeki clearly knows a lot about documentary-making, Japanese and American cultural idiosyncrasies, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, and also (like her heroine, Jane) about meat-farming, meat-processing, meat-marketing and the preparation of such delicacies as Prairie Oysters and Beef Fudge.
The structure of this book is unusual, too. Each month is given its exotic pre-Heian name. Chapters with titles like "The Rice-Sprouting Month," "The Poem-Composing Month," and "The Gods-Absent Month" give resonance to the events which take place in that month. We read the faxes which fly backwards and forwards between America and Tokyo as misunderstandings and gross disregard of the requirements (generally Jane's disregard of Tokyo's) are sorted out. Fragments of video script illustrate the work-in-progress. And Sei Shonagon's 1000-year-old Pillow Book thoughts are both directive and inspiring.
The framework on which Ruth Ozeki hangs her story is deceptively simple:
Jane Takagi-Little is commissioned by the Japanese Trade and Marketing syndicate, "BEEF-EX," to make a programme which shows an interesting American family in their own home as the wife prepares her favourite meat meal. Back in Tokyo, Akiko Ueno, wife of one of the chief marketing directors, must view each episode, rate it for interest and authenticity, and prepare the featured meal for her husband's approval.
Jane is given clear instructions by the Tokyo office in lists, which, like Shonagon's lists, describe "DESIRABLE THINGS" (which including the admonition "Pork is Possible. But Beef is Best!") and UNDESIRABLE THINGS (such as "obesity," "physical imperfections," and "2nd class peoples"). Jane, however, prefers Shonagon's imaginative and poetic lists, and her programmes quickly diverge from the stereotype "All American Family" which Tokyo expects. The episode that features a lesbian couple with their two children is the last straw. So, finally, Jane has to give Tokyo exactly what it wants, and she makes a programme set on a Texas cattle ranch and meat-processing property, featuring the wife, Bunny, who is an ex rodeo queen. As it turns out, the programme is totally unsuitable for marketing purposes.
Akiko, meanwhile, has followed each episode with increasing interest and has found her view of American wives and families vastly enlarged by Jane's programmes. She compares the lives of these wives with her own wifely role in an already tense and difficult marriage, and she begins to question things. The outcome of this is, predictably, disastrous. It is also dramatic and dangerous for Akiko but, ultimately, worthwhile.
To summarize the plot like this is simple but boring. To give you more of a taste of the meat of the book might tempt your appetite, but it would hardly indicate the varied nature of the feast. The book is very funny, very readable and very disturbing. Its characters are believable and unbelievable. Fiction is interwoven with fact. As a picture of the variety of American lifestyles, it is wonderful. As the story of the two women caught up in the daily events, it is delightful and harrowing, happy and sad. But as a comment on meat-farming and processing, it is bloody, horrible, and deeply worrying. And all meat-eaters should read it.