"I come at Japan in a very haphazard and impressionistic way," says Will Aitken in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal. Realia, Aitken's new novel and his first in seven years, is rooted in his obsession with things Japanese.
"There was a huge romance going on there for me for more than a decade," he explains. "Though the last time I went to Japan, in 1996, that romantic involvement seemed to be waning, much to my disappointment. But I don't think I will ever be attached to another country the way I've been attached to Japan."
It was the 51-year-old writer and broadcaster's work as a film critic that first took him to Japan in 1985. The Tokyo Film Festival had just been launched and the Japanese were paying journalists to come, spending millions of dollars in an attempt to make it the Cannes of the East.
"I was completely blind-sided by the culture, Tokyo and the festival itself," Aitken recalls. "I had an interesting reaction to Japan -- mornings I'd be head over heels with enthusiasm, but at day's end, I'd just want to get out -- it was too crowded, there were too many rules and I didn't understand what was going on. But when I came back to Canada, Japan wouldn't let go. I knew I'd have to go back."
Realia drop-kicks readers back to 1985 with thirtysomething Louise Painchaud as our tour guide. Brash, boisterous and fed up with Canada, Louise comes to Japan looking for something different. She finds it as an ESL teacher at the all-girls School of Heartfelt Purity on Mount Kurama and in her whirlwind romance with a Japanese pop star. Aitken deliberately avoids the Memoirs of a Geisha pattern, instead creating an irreverent comic novel that debunks the all-too-often idealized version of Japanese society.
It's a radical departure for Aitken as a novelist in both voice and subject. In his previous novels, Terre Haute (1989) and A Visit Home (1993), Aitken focused on issues like coming out, child abuse and recovered memory syndrome. His fictional worlds were also decidedly male and much more constricted. Realia, on the other hand, literally sweeps readers along in the wake of Louise's Japanese odyssey.
"What I am doing in Realia is not creating a portrait of a real Japan, but a dream or hallucination. But almost everything that happens in the novel I either saw myself or heard about."
Aitken admits to being a bit of a party boy himself and he's made good use of those experiences in the novel."When I was first in Japan, I got to know a Japanese actor and we became quite good friends. He had an entourage of stunt boys who were much like Oro, the Japanese pop star in Realia. They had the greatest parties! They always ended in demonstrations of stunts, wrestling on the floor and lots of fucking."
Still, Aitken says, the style of Realia is about as far from realism as you can get. "'Realia' is an archaeological term referring to objects from a culture that is no longer accessible. You use the objects to make suppositions about it. That's why the book is set in what is now a vanished era. While 1985 doesn't seem that far away, it was a golden era in Japan when money was flowing like tap water and the Japanese were masters of the universe."
Aitken's choice of an in-your-face heroine determined not to go gaga about Japan initially seems to conflict with his own experience, but, as he explains, "Louise came to me as this loud, self-assertive and rambunctious voice, and to go with that I envisioned this big-boned party girl from Lethbridge, Alberta, with shocking red hair that would make her stand out even more among the Japanese. But Japan takes her over in all kinds of subversive ways and ultimately gives her a role, a solution and a safe place in the world that she never anticipated."
Louise also allowed Aitken to free himself from his previous fictions. "I wanted to write a no-holds-barred book," he says with a chuckle. "Realia has this propulsive momentum I'd never achieved before, and that I really like."
Aitken says the change in style came after he broke with the more autobiographical themes of his earlier novels: "The vector of my writing has been getting away from writing about self. When I wrote about myself in my fiction, it was hard to be fair. Almost everything that happens in this book happened to me, but Louise is at enough of a distance that I could feel for her. There was a kind of empathy there that I could never give myself."
Aitken is already at work on a new novel and a wide-ranging collection of essays that explore his experiences in new media, architecture, his relationship with his paternal grandmother and his interest in modern dance, among other things.
"Writing used to be so painful. It took me a long time to get to it and a long time to recover from it. I don't know if the writing has gotten better or I've gotten better, but it's become a lot more pleasurable. I think Louise was the turning point."
Will Aitken reads on Sept. 28 at 7:30pm at Hart House Library, 7 Hart House Circle, as part of the U of T Bookstore Reading Series.