As an American writing about Japan as seen through the eyes of the Japanese, Alan Brown, in his first novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, plummets the reader into an unsettling, futuristic vision of Tokyo.
The novel’s young hero, Toshi, is in love with all things American, particularly women, particularly Audrey Hepburn. (He would be thrilled, no doubt, that his tale has been optioned by Hollywood big shot Wayne Wang, who directed The Joy Luck Club.) Raised in a fishing village by a reticent father and deserted by a mother whose absence is never discussed by the family, Toshi flees the isolation of his childhood home for Tokyo, where he works as a cartoonist.
When he falls into bed with Jane, an American who teaches him at the Very Romantic English Academy, Toshi is delighted: Jane is certainly odd, but perhaps no more so than the other Americans to whom Toshi is drawn, people whose endless chatter, so unlike his parents’ silence, swirls about him in a half-understood torrent. Alas, it doesn’t take long for Jane to show her madness, à la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, forcing Toshi to seek refuge with two other Americans — his best friend, Paul, and Jane’s acquaintance Lucy.
While Jane’s acts of insanity frame the story, the heart of the book lies in Toshi’s memories of his lonely childhood and questions about his mother’s abrupt departure. Brown’s writing, simultaneously tender and witty, lushly evokes Toshi’s daydream world, where even Jane’s craziness barely intrudes.
In his protagonist, Brown gives us an honest and endearing host who guides us through the Japanese landscape and culture with the same acuity he uses to penetrate the facades of the people around him. ”He’d never known she was capable of lies,” Brown writes of Toshi and his mother. ”Yet she’d told one as quickly and easily as she told the truth, as if they were the same things.” So, too, does Brown layer impressions of fantasy and reality, leaving the reader, finally, with an odd and terrible tale of betrayal and redemption. A-