Some Brief Thoughts on David Mura’s first novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire
What would have happened if Ichiro Yamada from No-No Boy went and married a nice sansei Japanese woman without telling her the status of his “no-no” boy background? The resulting story might have been what David Mura investigates in his Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire in, what I understand to be, Mura’s first novelistic foray. I read this on the plane ride back home from Seoul. Mura is probably most well-known for his pair of refreshingly and unflinchingly honest memoirs, Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory. Mura is also the author of a number of poetry collections, including The Colors of Desire, Angels for the Burning, and After We Lost Our Way. Clearly as master of the creative non-fictional form, it is perhaps not surprising that the story is narrated from a historian researching the titular suicides and the culture that seemingly celebrates the self-obliterative act. Like the memoirs, the novel delves into problematics related to masculinity as the main character, Ben Ohara, and his younger brother grow up in the shadow of his father’s status as a no-no boy. When his father commits suicide, Ben turns increasingly rebellious, whereas his little brother cultivates his desire for knowledge, sciences, and the scientific occult. Somewhere along the way, Ben eventually straightens himself out whereas his brother turns more and more to drugs. The mystery that first catalyzes the novel remains the younger brother’s mysterious disappearance, having presumably died somewhere in the Mojave Desert after having consumed a large amount of narcotics. The novel is much involved in the recovery of the past, the attempt made by Ben to make sense of what happened to himself, his father, his mother, and his younger brother. Mura establishes another point along the rich trajectory that is Japanese American post-internment camp literatures and stands to delve into the psychologically complex phenomena related to trauma as it moves across generations.
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