Empire of Distraction by Jeff Diteman

Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, February 12th, 2015

If all privileged people had the opportunity to experience such debasement...

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A book review of You Are Make Very Important Bathtime by David Moscovich, published by The Journal of Experimental Fiction, 2013.

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In 1966, Roland Barthes visited Japan and wrote Empire of Signs, training his semiotician’s eye on the culture of the Asian archipelago. Having shown in Mythologies how Western culture produces an infinite supply of signifiers to fill the void between fact and totality, Barthes found that in Japan, signs function differently. In haiku, calligraphy, tea ceremony and so forth, signs operate without the burden of imposed interpretations. Just as Zen erodes the will to signification through nonsense and circumlocution, the Japanese aesthetic system resists unchecked proliferation of meaning. Signs are free to mean what they mean, and nothing more.

The novella You Are Make Very Important Bathtime by David Moscovich tosses the reader into a Japan that is more of a Baudrillardian nightmare than Barthes’s serene empire of signs. Resistance to abstract meaning remains the rule, but signs themselves have run amok. Civilization’s compulsive obsession with building churns on in parallel with individuals’ habits of constant communication. Every other city block is under construction, and nearly every direct interaction is plagued by text messages and phone calls. The Japan of haiku and tea is mostly a memory in a Nagasaki filled with glowing signs, karaoke bars and love hotels—an empire of distraction.

When I first cracked You Are Make Very Important Bathtime, I was apprehensive. The opening vignette portrays the protagonist (referred to throughout by the second person “you”) at the airport, being mistaken for David Beckham by two giggling Japanese girls, and “that’s when you know you’re going to have a good time in Japan.” Groan, I thought, is this going to be some brat-abroad tale of white male entitlement, a crass playboy’s adventure in Asia? In fact, with further reading, some of my worst fears for this novella were confirmed, but so were some of my highest expectations. Indeed, this is a brat-abroad romp filled with cheap booze and cheaper sex. But it’s not a mindless debauch. The breezy irreverence of white privilege is constantly confounded by embarrassments corporeal, linguistic and social. You, the protagonist, are a misanthrope but not a nihilist, a shameless drunk but not immune to consequences, a chronic philanderer but lacking the misogyny and dishonesty that make a true player.

The vignettes comprising this novella usually build from snarky narrative to panic, injury, humiliation or hilarity within the space of about one page. The economical, acerbic tone matches the themes of alienation, fragile sanity and hope deferred. Torn between the temptations afforded by white privilege—Japanese women are constantly mistaking him for Tom Cruise or Patrick Swayze—and the reassuring co-dependency of his inexplicably devoted girlfriend Azuka, the narrator careens from exploit to remorse faster than you can say “train wreck.” In so doing, he manages to reinforce every ugly-gaijin stereotype, while oscillating between the torment of isolation, the cheap refuge of hedonism, and the golden anodyne of laughter.

In a world of global English and Anglo-American cultural hegemony, there are few places where a white male American can go to experience profound marginalization while also enjoying the comforts of security and consumerism. This book portrays Nagasaki as such a place. Over and over, the protagonist is subjected to indignations ranging from casual objectification to outright racism, as even the most well-intentioned locals end up making him feel like a second-class citizen. The will to assimilate is a source of immense anguish; other expatriates are depicted as living in comfortable resignation, having given up on integrating. Goaded on by a craving for human connection, the protagonist is repeatedly disappointed, experiencing a mild but aggravating series of the sort of petty outrages that plague unwelcome immigrants all over the world. If all privileged people had the opportunity to experience such debasement, an epidemic of humility would sweep across the empire.

A contribution to a grand tradition of the travel farce, You Are Make Very Important Bathtime brings the absurdities of language into close contact with those of life. With the candor of Tayeb Salih and the poetics of Gertrude Stein, Moscovich takes you to uncomfortable places with unorthodox phrases. The novella’s most memorable moments are found in its surprising inventory of defeat: a Les Miserables poster smeared with shit, a motorcycle accident, a surfing disaster. By juxtaposing its contemplations of cultural isolation with the intermissive jottings of an absurdist flaneur and footnotes enthusing about the many delicious ways of enjoying MSG, this novella refuses to adhere to formal norms or tonal boundaries. With its run-on-sentence structure and frequent stream-of-consciousness narration, it is unapologetically unpolished; those with no patience for writing that sometimes exposes its own framework may find it pretentious. For those of us who enjoy a little brine in our martini, Moscovich’s book is a stiff, bracing read with the substance and wit to justify its excesses—a smart book about stupid behavior.

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Header image courtesy of Enrico Nagel. To view a gallery of his collage, go here.

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jeff ditemanJeff Diteman is a polyartist, translator, and linguist now residing in Southern Vermont.

His online portfolio can be found here.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).