book review

American writer of historical fiction finds inspiration in modern Tokyo

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What do Johnny Appleseed and Akihabara have in common? Ask Adam Littleton, a teacher and writer whose pastoral yarns of the old frontier would seem, at first glance, to have little to do with the glittering futurescape of contemporary Tokyo.

Littleton, who has called Japan home for the past five years, says that the contrast between his home and his subject matter sometimes raises eyebrows.

“When I tell people that I write, they often ask me, ‘So do you write about Japan?’ And it’s always a bit awkward admitting that, ‘Well, actually, the last novel I wrote was about Johnny Appleseed.’”

"American Baroque," which will see release in January via Knox Robinson Publishing, is a retelling of the familiar Appleseed folktale with a hard-cider twist. The famed planter gets a makeover as a sort of drunken guru, one as likely to engage in Buddhist meditation or Bacchic debauchery as to quote from the pages of the Bible. It’s a premise born directly of Littleton’s experiences in Japan.

“There’s some Murakami in there, for sure. But the idea came about to a large extent just from being in this environment that was so foreign. You try to come to grips with Japanese culture and all its complexity and strangeness, and you realize, of course, that you’re the strange one. You ask yourself: ‘Why does it feel so foreign?’ ‘Well, because I'm American, I guess.’ But what exactly does that mean?”

It was an experience in Shinjuku that triggered an unlikely association.

“I was in that museum in the Sompo Building, the one with Van Gogh’s 'Sunflowers,' and they were doing an exhibition of Grandma Moses paintings. Horses and buggies, farm scenes, all with this child-like naiveté. Normally, I would dismiss stuff like that straightaway as kitsch. But in that alien setting, it took on a new significance, like, ‘Wait, what is this? Maybe there’s something here....’ That got some wheels turning.”

The book, with its setting in an idyllic fictional village in 1830s Indiana, is as Americana as apple pie, but spiced with liberal doses of mystical revelation and magical realism.

“It’s a strange cocktail, the sort of taste you might expect to encounter on a night out in Shibuya."

It all builds to a quite literally explosive climax, with doses of Zen, alchemy, and some Fourth of July fireworks gone horribly wrong.

“I like to keep things colorful,” says Littleton. “That’s one thing the Americana aesthetic often lacks — everything is so sepia-toned, so drab. It’s a big reason why I came to Japan to begin with. There’s no better antidote to that than a summer festival in Tokyo, with the kimonos and the fireworks. Or just a stroll through Akihabara, for that matter.”

In addition to inspiration, the city provides no shortage of food for thought.

“I’m not sure what the real Johnny Appleseed would have made of maid cafes...” Littleton reflects. “But I know the one in my book would have loved them.”

© Japan Today

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3 Comments
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After 31 years here, I can definitely relate. Japan never gets tiring, though I'm much less "out there" awash in it the way I once was.

Adam, I'd love to see you write something on Japan akin to Martin Cruz Smith's "Tokyo Station" (renamed "1941").

In the meantime I'll get one of yours. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.

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Thanks very much, Hunter! Japan never fails to inspire. I'll have to look into Martin Cruz Smith's Tokyo Station/1941—many thanks for the tip. Happy reading!

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I will have to look for books from this author!

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