A short novel by Michael Knight sees the post-WWII occupation of Japan through the eyes of a confused typist in General MacArthur’s office.
There is a particular pleasure to reading a short novel or novella that is distinct from that of reading a longer book. Having spent most of the summer immersed in long novels that stretch, I turned with some anticipation to Michael Knight’s The Typist. The book itself is small—smaller than most hardcovers, an early signal that promises a story that can be taken in quickly, absorbed with some of the same immediacy of a film or a short tale.
Among the good things The Typist offers is an unfamiliar setting—Tokyo immediately after World War II, during the U.S. occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur—and a fresh perspective and narrative voice, that of a soldier who has spent the war not in combat but in office work. (They also serve who only sit and type.) The typist of the title is this young man from Mobile, Alabama, who confides his story in a simple, earnest tone that establishes him at the outset as naïve, rather earnest, but equipped with sensitivity, attention, and intelligence.
Van is part of a large corps of administrative functionaries in MacArthur’s occupying government. MacArthur himself, whom Van refers to throughout by the soldiers’ nickname of “Bunny,” is a character here, seen close up both at the office and at home. MacArthur has a young son, Arthur, who is isolated socially; the general hires Van as a weekly playmate. Van spends his days typing, his weekends babysitting the general’s boy, his off hours dodging letters from the girl he impulsively married and left back in the States. That life back in America is something he seems eager to postpone indefinitely, posing as it does the challenge of a decision he can’t yet wrap his mind around. Meanwhile, his roommate, Clifford, draws him into the sophisticated and seedy world of Tokyo nightlife, among the prostitutes and black marketeers of a ruined city. Unlike Van, who steers clear of physical temptations, Clifford falls for Namiki, a pan-pan girl he meets in a dancehall, and, wanting the money to live with her, gets involved with dangerous local politics and illicit trade.
We see MacArthur’s administration of postwar Japan through Van’s perspective as one of a hive of office workers—the general lives on a grand scale at the apex of his huge organization, with his haughty wife and lonely son; the reader thus sees MacArthur as a man trying to please his family even while administering a vast army and a defeated nation. As a companion to the general’s son, Van attends the war crimes trial of Tojo. Later, escorting the boy to the screening of an American movie, Van finds himself sharing a clandestine limousine ride with both young Arthur MacArthur and Clifford’s Japanese girlfriend, a collision of previously separate spheres that loses him his cushy babysitting duty. When Clifford’s obsession with Namiki ends in violence, Van’s efforts to maintain distance between himself and these personal and political turmoils collapses. The quiet power of The Typist lies in Knight’s understated depiction of the impacts of these collisions.
Knight produces a number of stunning set-pieces, in which what must have been considerable research is elevated through imagination and skillful prose into marvelously effective scenes that submerge historical detail in effective drama: the testimony of Tojo; the crowded screening of a Gene Kelly movie to a mixed American and Japanese audience; and the novel’s climax, an elaborately staged demonstration football game played by ex-college players, organized by MacArthur and carried out before a stadium crowd of American GIs and Japanese guests. The occasion, intended to demonstrate good will and cultural exchange, recreates and amplifies the inherent incomprehension between the two groups. Van attends with Namiki’s friend Fumiko, and the occasion, though meant to be festive, brings them instead to a crisis of mourning.
The apparent simplicity of Van’s narrative belies the increasing emotional magnitude of the story he tells. As the tale unfolds, it gradually builds in resonance, and the small elements of narrative and character put in place at the outset erupt in the final pages with seismic effect. By the time Van returns to the United States, his desk-bound military experience feels as authentic, and convulsive, as that of any frontline warrior, and as transformational—for him and for the reader.
All that happened to Van in Tokyo follows him back to the United States, as he pays a visit to Clifford’s family and tries to find his place in the post-war world. When he retraces his steps to his wife’s home, he’s uncertain what he’ll find there, or what he wants to find. Knight makes the suspense here, as throughout, real and thrilling, and brings the enormity of Van’s war experiences to bear meaningfully on the domestic scenes to which he returns, bringing this elegant, restrained novel to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.