With Big in Japan, M. Thomas Gammarino seamlessly ties the world of rock to prose in a way that strikes me a beautiful and rare. Take this passage from early in the book, where the protagonist, Agenbite guitarist and band neurotic Brain, has a smoke after losing a fight with singer Theo about their upcoming tour of Japan: “There was a note of autumn in the air, a whole minor-seventh arpeggio, in fact.” A minor-seventh arpeggio is just the vehicle to show the beauty and sadness of the coming season to the musically attuned ear. You can almost hear the leaves falling.
To imply that Agenbite is an internationally touring band might be overstating their level of success, at least during Brain’s tenure. They’ve gotten some nice reviews on the internet, and one “tour” to Montreal from their native Philly didn’t result in a complete breakdown. Still, their manager is looking for a way to boost record sales, and a trip to Japan—where the band has actually moved a few units—strikes them all as a way forward, save Brain, who is more interested in writing songs in 15/16 time.
Once Brain arrives in the Land of the Rising Sun and sees the bevy of women in his path, his interest in music takes a back seat. On a train filled with lovely natives, Brain “placed his backpack on his lap and stroked fervently at his glans with his index and middle fingers until, not a half minute later, feigning a spell of whooping cough, he pumped a hundred million hightailing sperm into his underwear.” Clearly, Brain has concerns other than rock music domination—or maybe sex is the same thing. When he proposes marriage to the first woman to relieve him of his burden—a Japanese sex worker, no less—wedding bells are right around the corner, not to mention his abrupt exit from Agenbite.
Gammarino touches on fringe characters with the quickest brushstrokes and manages to render them wholly. Take Agenbite’s original bassist Ish, “who after kissing his first girl a couple years back had transformed overnight into a hippy intellectual and soon after quit the band to take up French translation.” It’s easy to imagine this guy as part of any rock band’s past, and Gammarino shines when bringing such tertiary characters to the fore. You can smell the clove cigarettes.
On his way to the altar, Brain feels a growing connection with Miho, his wife, which Gammarino renders with trademark lyricism.
They went to movies, ate, played skee ball, took photos and had them taken, all the while spawning a third entity between them, a mystical offspring made of memories and feelings, with a life all its own and a potential for death that was increasingly unbearable to think of.
Despite being smitten, Brain quickly finds his new life at least as chaotic as the one he left. Perhaps most chaotic is Brain’s own cheating heart. As married life grows stale, he takes a less-than-wholesome interest in Kyoko, a student to whom he teaches English. The pair’s affair suffers its death knell when Brain discovers a photo of Kyoko with her betrothed.
Why in god’s name would Kyoko have been juicing [Brain], a white guy, while she planned to spend the rest of her life with the brown guy in the photo? No, it definitely did not make any sense.
“So what were you just curious about doing it with a gaijin or what?”[Kyoko] paused to reflect, then said, “So kamo shirenai”—maybe.
It seems Brain isn’t the only one with a taste for things that don’t necessarily enable his destiny. In fact, Brain’s torment post-Kyoko at one point takes him way beyond the pale. I only hope I can forget it sometime soon.
For many men of a certain age, the guitar goes into the closet when it’s time to get on with life. Still, the pull of making music, recording albums, and touring faraway places has its allure. So do exotic women in backstage rooms. Gammarino adeptly paints the dissolution of a young guitarist as the world turns out to be less than it was cracked up to be. You can’t have everything, and in the end, maybe that’s for the best.