Amazing Sushi

Jessica Olin

  • Crawling at Night by Nani Power
    Heinemann, 234 pp, £9.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 434 00856 7

In Nani Power’s novel Crawling at Night, Katsuyuki Ito has only been in New York, his new home, for a few months. On the surface, his life in the United States is exactly the same as it was in Japan; as a shokunin, or sushi chef, he performs a strict series of daily tasks. For 42 years, his day has begun before dawn, as he picks out the best cuts of tuna and flatfish at the market and makes shopping lists. During the day, as he expertly shapes handfuls of rice and makes miso soup, his mind is filled with images from the diaries of the courtesan Murasaki Shikibu and her famous Tale of Genji. But while in his native language Ito can quote six hundred haiku, he is adrift in English, forced to speak in a sort of baby-talk. In Japan, he was a cultured man whose exact hand movements were ‘likened to the Enlightenment Poise of the Buddha’: in New York he is a ‘trained performer, a circus animal’. His American customers gape at his speed and ruin his creations with too much soy sauce, calling the raw food ‘slimy’ and asking: ‘do you guys have karaoke?’

The person who has brought him to New York is the hyperactive Yoshi, ‘a man who appears as if always running, tripping forward’. Yoshi is the owner of Sugibar, the restaurant where Ito works; he is hip and slick, dresses in tight black clothes and has a ponytail. Vain about his ‘sinewy and childlike’ body, Yoshi has travelled to Tokyo and had small plastic pellets inserted under the skin of his penis to increase his sexual power. He is a fan of Japanese adult comics and strip clubs, and, feeling responsible for Ito’s happiness in his new country, takes him out on the town several times. It is on one of these occasions that Ito meets a Chinese prostitute called Ling Yu and manages to persuade himself that she is Xiu-Xiu, a Chinese prostitute he knew in Tokyo with whom he’s still in love. He begins to frequent the club where Ling Yu sings, offering her ‘gifts’ of crisp $100 bills and dreaming of her body. At the same time he is pursued by thoughts of his late wife, Tomoko, who has died not long before from stomach cancer.

Haunted by shades and fantasies, unable to communicate, Ito is more a resident of his past than of his new city, but his sense of duty finally forces him to become involved in the world around him. There is a certain waitress at Sugibar who is his favourite, a woman named Mariane. She is older than the others, clumsy and skittish, and to Ito she seems frail and in need of protection. When Ito realises that she is downing sake at work instead of coffee, he resolves to take her in hand. Feeling an obligation to ‘the good of the whole’, he believes he must explain to her the harm she is causing the restaurant. But he also knows that his sense of company loyalty does not account for the ‘dark, hungry’ excitement he feels at the prospect of talking to her. In his fantasies, he wonders about American women, thinking of their ‘blue eyes like frosty waves’, their ‘big, drooping peachy breasts’. His mental catalogue of American images includes a clip of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and he believes he can see Mariane’s face in her, ‘as if Mariane were the face of old American dreams’.

Mariane is indeed frail; she is also an alcoholic. As a child, she was neglected by her depressed mother and molested by a trusted neighbour, and hit the road as a teenager, drifting and hitchhiking. With no money, she was forced to rely on the interest her body held for older men, and learned to see these sexual encounters as an inevitable, if unpleasant fact of her existence: ‘I guess at this point I was beginning to think this is what would always happen, I didn’t stop or start, just flowed.’ At 16 she became the child bride of a trucker in North Carolina, and soon gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Daisy. She began spiking her lemonade with Wild Turkey to liven up the day; before long she was passing out in the afternoons. Eventually her husband, whose idea of fun was painting decoy ducks in the garage, called Social Services to take Daisy away and committed Mariane to a hospital to dry out. She escaped, and with the assistance of another man, again ran away – this time to New York, where she got a job waitressing and schemed to get her baby back. But Mariane’s upbringing had left her with a ‘heat-seeking need for disarray’ that undermined all attempts at stability. Swept up in the after-hours nightlife, she began coming home with torn stockings, smelling of vomit. At one point she started to sing in a rock band, and it seemed she was at last to get her big break, but this plan, too, fell foul of her drinking. By the time Mariane shows up at Sugibar, middle-aged and shaky, she is damaged beyond repair, and her plans to reclaim Daisy have become a mantra: ‘In the mornings, there is something I need to remember, someone. I have a plan of action. I am working towards some direction.’

Like Ito, Mariane creates order in her life through a series of repetitive actions; drink in hand, she counts her steps to the bath and touches each of the tiles twice: ‘In ritual lies calm.’ But while Ito’s tasks are creative, Mariane’s compulsions merely mark time, providing a sense of security while she replenishes the alcohol in her bloodstream. Her day is parcelled into the half-hour segments of talk shows: Geraldo at nine, Jenny Jones at three. But at the end of the shift Mariane’s nightly binge begins again, and after the bars close her need for companionship results in a ‘whole slew of names’ she won’t remember the next morning. One night after work, Mariane stays late, drinking plum wine with Yoshi, who has begun to see his waitresses’ sexual availability as a job perk. He and she are drunk, and a violent encounter follows which disturbs them both, but leaves neither entirely sure of what happened or who is at fault. After a tense couple of weeks, Yoshi fires Mariane, telling Ito she has been stealing money from the restaurant. Ito is alarmed but resolute, and shows up at Mariane’s apartment building that night, intent on talking to her. They embark on a late-night odyssey of Chinese food, Chivas Regal and sake, during which they swap stories and secrets, and it becomes clear that neither of them is telling the whole truth – to the other or to themselves.

The world of Crawling at Night is made up entirely of colourful characters. They include the lovely Ling Yu, who records the sounds her male clients make at climax and plans to design a perfume called Sweet Childhood of Happy Times. The only man who has ever made her happy is her retarded childhood lover, Ton, who is obsessed with Elvis. He wears blue suede shoes to his janitor’s job and tells her about the King’s penchant for fried peanut butter sandwiches. Ton journeyed to the United States on a refugee boat in his mother’s belly, while on deck his father’s brain swelled up from encephalitis. Carol, Ton’s mother, has cared for him on her own for twenty years, finding comfort in her Bible study with the Vietnamese Ladies Coalition, but is still visited by the troubled spirit of her husband. And these are just the major characters. There is the Indian convenience-store worker who still remembers the day in New Delhi when he came face to face with a famous kohl-eyed singer; the motel desk clerk who is doing his thesis at Georgetown on Japanese anime; the sushi worker whose girlfriend has 13 piercings and seduces him in a karaoke box to ‘My Way’; and the young butcher who is torn between his wife, a ‘ceramic kitten of a girl’, and the sexual encounters he’s been having in the meat locker with another man. There is not a single drab character in the book, much of whose appeal depends on the reader embracing its hyperactivity.

Power leans heavily on flashbacks of vivid, often disturbing images and on splicing memories, snatches of songs and lengthy menus into her account of her characters’ experiences. In her New York, everyone has a story, and a wild one at that. Most of the time, she has a reason for recounting these personal histories, as many of her characters’ seemingly disparate lives end up intersecting at crucial moments, but all this storytelling sometimes encumbers the plot with unnecessary detail, as in the case of the cabdriver nicknamed Tiny, who we never hear from again. Slangy framing devices (a list of phrases taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook, for example) and the use of self-help clichés to explain her characters’ motivations are distracting, as are her poorly constructed sentences and tendency to change tense several times within a paragraph or even within a sentence. Sometimes her style seems conscientiously to mimic the speech of an immigrant who hasn’t mastered English, or to evoke the spare rhythms of Asian poetry; at other times it just seems sloppy.

More effective is the way she handles the food-sex connection, avoiding the softly lit fantasies of the sensual-food novel. Yoshi makes bad jokes about sushi and sex, comparing akagi, the red clam, to a vagina; a Japanese whore’s customer eats sashimi off her pubic hair; Ito masturbates as Xiu-Xiu eats noodles and spreads herself open with chopsticks. Dining on sushi for the first time, Miss Ling compares her large, brown nipples to shiitake mushrooms and wonders how Ito will be in bed: ‘I am wondering right now, what will he be like? I have only been with Chinese guys. The raw fish, the warm sake and the spicy wasabi make me feel curious. The sushi is good, amazing. I feel like I live in the sea, that I taste the waves.’ And in the meat locker, the pork worker’s rough foreplay mingles with the smell of pig carcasses.

There is a great deal of sex in the novel, and much of it is unpleasant in one way or another: drunken, impersonal, violent, bloody. The couplings are fraught with misunderstandings and rarely provide any emotional connection. The most romantic aspect of these people’s lives has to do with their experience of certain places at significant moments. When Mariane is feeling particularly low, she drifts almost unconsciously to grand old hotels – the Barclay or the Plaza – and takes comfort from their ‘velvety welcome’, their dark, plush bars and bowls of ‘dusty smoked almonds’. For Ito, the most relaxing time of day is the restaurant’s ‘quiet hour’: the lull between lunch and dinner, when he reads a Tokyo newspaper and takes a nap on the back banquette. And regardless of the confusions of his daily life, he can rely on the rhythms of the fish market, ‘where tired men in overalls and stiff rubber gloves … plod around heaving huge fish by their tails and scratch out illegible receipts on their messy desks, dusty, with scattered papers flying. Outside the dawn is stiff and cyanic, trucks pull in and leave. Fires burn in rusted barrels.’ In this hectic novel, peace can be found in the most unlikely of places: the city itself.