Life Is Not Karaoke Booth

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In this debut novel, an American woman running from personal tragedy falls headlong into the confusions and solaces of Japanese culture.

When I adore a novel and consume it as quickly as I did Malena Watrous’s debut, If You Follow Me, it can be difficult to dissect and analyze. The novel is so engrossing, so tightly knit, that I’m reluctant to pull back the curtain and pick apart its mechanics. To attack it with a scalpel seems like a disservice, but Watrous’s novel is complex and meaty enough to warrant close inspection.

Marina is a blond California girl just out of college, who finds herself tagging along with her first girlfriend to teach English in Japan. She’s rushing to the other side of the world, falling headlong into a serious relationship, to escape her father’s recent suicide. In the remote seaside town of Shika, Marina feels stunned, gawky, and outsized in appearance and behavior. Watrous hits the voice of Marina with perfect pitch—cocky, daring, grasping, sometimes flighty, simultaneously overconfident and nakedly insecure. At first this frenetic voice felt exasperating—until I realized Watrous was simply reproducing Marina’s confused emotional state with great accuracy.

At twenty-two, she thinks she knows the world, but the world is often obliged to show her she’s mistaken. A bit sheltered, but with the bravado and idealism of youth, Marina exhibits a smidge of American entitlement but is ultimately open-minded and a good sport. While she’s frustrated by, and sometimes dismissive of, the reserved nature of Japanese culture, Marina is also willing to participate in naked bathing rituals with her neighbors and tutor a colleague’s severely autistic son.

Language is pushed to the forefront of the novel, a decision that fits well with its themes. What the characters struggle to say, what goes unsaid, what cannot be expressed—all are thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of language barriers and cultural difference, and Marina’s slog through her emotional fallout. Her supervisor, Hiroshi Miyoshi, writes her long letters regarding the many affronts to Japanese culture she has committed; these letters are endearingly honest compared to his verbal interactions with Marina and reveal much about their writer:

I thought about how English is useful when I sing karaoke. I should begin by saying that singing is not truly my “hobby.” “Hobby” means for fun I think. But karaoke is how I speak my truth. If I use my speaking voice to say “I am lonesome,” especially if I say in Japanese, they will find me kind of pathetic and probably run away. In any case, I would never say this. But if I sing “I feel so all alone” in style of Elvis Presley, maybe they will not run away. Maybe they will come closer, to enjoy great song, and lonesome feeling will go away.

Problem is, life is not karaoke booth.

Other citizens of Shika use conversational English to let off steam and express sentiments that would otherwise be frowned upon. In her role as English teacher, Marina struggles, with amusingly mixed results, to make her native language meaningful to the future secretaries and factory workers in her classes, encouraging them to explore beyond the catch phrases of American television and fashion magazines.

Navigating the elaborate gomi laws that govern garbage disposal presents Marina with the starkest cultural differences between her and her Japanese counterparts. Here, Watrous’s writing is at its best, conveying dark-ish humor, paralyzing awkwardness, and the depths of heartache. We chuckle at Marina’s mortification upon learning that a nosy neighbor was obliged to fish her non-recyclable tampons out of the recycling bag; we’re equally crushed when her roommate’s beloved cat is found suffocated inside an improperly disposed refrigerator. It’s appropriate, then, that Marina’s grief, which she plays very close to the vest, culminates in a desperate search for her father’s mementos in a mountain of trash.

This grief is the dark current that bubbles to the surface in the most unexpected places. Marina’s struggle with her father’s death is long, complicated, and confusing. The traditional Japanese respect for personal privacy, while difficult for many Westerners to adapt to, turns out to be therapeutic for a lonely daughter sorting through the sudden loss of a parent. Though no one asks awkward questions, it turns out they understand more than one might expect.

If You Follow Me is a good antidote to books like Eat, Pray, Love. Sure, it’s also about an American girl who finds self-knowledge and solace abroad—but Watrous’s novel is no self-indulgent romp. She writes real, flawed human beings in genuine relationships stumbling toward the adorably quirky on one side or the broodingly obscure on the other. If You Follow Me is a delicious joy to devour, but still gives plenty of cud to chew on after you’ve finished.

Kate Munning is the production editor for The Literary Review. She writes about food and gardening at Coltivi. More from this author →