“Cui Bono?” or “Reflections of a Goading I”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

I know I’ve got to get around to the Chokkan 2 Mikitty piece sooner or later, but for some reason I just don’t want to. Not right now, not for the past week. It isn’t that I don’t want to rain golden showers of praise upon my favorite current Musume – I just don’t have it in me to do so in a vaguely coherent, textually based manner. Not just yet, anyway.

And at these times of minor crisis – where I’m fighting laziness or depression or mere orneriness but know eventually I’ll lapse out of whatever that mood is – I find it useful to consider the so-called Big Questions, if only to pass some time in a semblance of reflection.

The Big Question being, Why spend so much time writing about Jpop? Why devote such attention to this blog? Who benefits? And I’ve discussed this before, but it’s not like I’ve exhausted all the aspects that I could consider. And if I was to be absolutely honest, the distinct approach and intensity of this blog means that lapses of faith – and a public statement of commitment (or re-commitment) are necessary to keep me going.

So to whose advantage does this blog exist?

I can’t imagine any of the idols I write about ever going to this site. Most all of them don’t have the English necessary to read this blog – and my occassional bursts of lavish semantic diarrhea surely don’t help matters any. It’s one of the hazards of lapsing into acadamese so damn often. Beyond that, why would they care about an audience that many acts don’t even recognize as existing in a meaningful manner? Fans of Jpop outside of Asia are often worse off than redheaded stepchildren.

And as much as I hope to please you readers, I really don’t think there’ll be any huge protests if this thing just shuts down. I know the role this blog inhabits as a pleasant distraction for like-minded Jpop fan, a way to kill some time and share opinions about this strange interest we share. I certainly won’t underestimate the entertainment I hope I bring to you folks with every blog entry – but to overestimate it would be even worse, I’d say.

So the obvious answer is that the writer benefits more than anyone else. I write because I enjoy it too much to give up, I write this blog in the way that I do because it’s too much damn fun for me and I hope that fun is passed along to you. There is a narcissistic thrill to being able to express one’s ideas and have them validated – if not actually approved – by the presence of an audience.

But why write about Jpop in this way? What do I get out of this pseudo-scholarly, overly attentive, maddeningly allusive fashion? It’s not as if there was a vacuum waiting to be filled with such writing. I doubt anybody turned to the person next to them and said, “You know, we need somebody lecturing us on the deeper meaning of Morning Musume.” And the other person went, “Not just that, we also need an ongoing apologetics for rorikon.” And then they shake their heads in agreement.

I’m sure that conversation never took place anywhere.

You see, the academese is an honest expression of intellectual curiosity… but it’s also an elaborate dodge. And thinking about it now, I see that it’s yet another thing I learned from the writers I find myself emulating time and again – though never achieving even a fraction of their greatness – Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth.

(An aside: In my younger days I’d try my damnedest to mimic my idols at the time, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon… but when my guard was down, the Nabokov and Roth influences would seep in and spoil all that pseudo-encyclopedic, apocalyptic, Big Idea semantic-splitting that I thought was the point of those authors. It’d just be more fun to write in the Nabokov / Roth mode than the paranoid-soaked postmodernism of DeLillo and Pynchon.)

What VN and Roth taught me as a writer is how to gussy up neurosis and make it presentable, to let the inherent linguistic beauty of one’s least acceptable obsessions to bloom and flower like a thirteen-year-old nymph. VN did it best by couching neurosis in the language of frustrated academics, letting his allusions and linguistic wordplay circle around forbidden desires and dreams like so many angels waiting to land on the head of a pin. Lolita is a great example of this, but so is the elaborate fantasy in the poetic exegesis of Pale Fire (another favorite of mine). The play’s the thing for VN, and he was never shy about that.

While there was an autobiographical element to VN’s narrators – he knew the literary archetype of the European expatriate scholar inside-out – Roth took that self-cannibalizing instinct further. His writers were almost always thinly disguised versions of himself, and he’d later take it further by fucking with the very expectation that Roth = Zuckerman = Kepesh and so forth. For Roth, this meant his narrators were articulate, erudite Jews (often writers themselves), obsessed with being Jewish and having sex.

Roth revelled in what he saw as the Jewish American need to speak and speak and speak, with its unique rhythms and tics, its desire to kvetch and kvell. Self-inflicted psychoanalysis is one of Roth’s best weapons, the knowledge that one is fucked up – the desire to discuss how fucked up one is to anybody willing to listen – and ultimately, the refusal to stop being fucked up because being fucked up is the only way you know how to get through life. Roth is fond of that line from Rilke, “You must change your life” – but often the comedy of Roth’s work is in the refusal to follow that command.

In both VN and Roth’s case, the fertile creative ground was the parts of the psyche that were too often overlooked by polite society: not just the hidden desires and the unspoken wishes, but also the deep-seated self-loathing and delusions of grandeur and unspeakable lapses of treacle, the much-despised moments of honest (if embarassing) sentimentality. There was a page from Roth’s Deception that I used to keep pasted on my wall about the author’s interest in the fetishistic aspects of life, the intrusive desire to expose and examine, “the nose in the seam of the undergarment,” to use his eloquent phrase.

When I blog about Jpop, that’s what creeps out from underneath the long sentences and literary allusions and close reading of motifs and symbols – the desires laid bare, the awe and wonderment and doubt. The dodge is the thing, the ability to play peekaboo with my basest desires by couching them in the guise of making “respectable” an interest my culture considers fringe and negligible. I’m not always very good about tying all my evidence together or even starting with a coherent premise… I was a third-rate academic back when I was a real academic. But I always make plain my adoration of whatever idol I’ve left pinned and wriggling on the wall, like a butterfly caught in a lepidopterist’s greedy yet careful clutches. The love is evident, but so should all the less polite aspects that come with my interest in Jpop. Without those things, the fun would barely start.

And you readers have always been quick to catch all that, which I’ve respected and appreciated. What the hell, you knew I was falling for Momoko long before I actually could admit it to myself. (And when I finally did admit it, I made you all pay for it with stanza after stanza of bad poetry. Ha! The joke was on you, after all! I think.)

But having such good readers, my own game’s had to step up as well. There’s the increasing drive towards multi-part series with grander ambitions (the spires and steeples of this creaky blog cathedral), as well as my mania for easter eggs (the hidden cloakrooms and dungeons of the cathedral where further excesses are tolerated, if never spoken of). Perhaps most insidious way I’ve ratcheted up the game is the way the writing has become more personal over the course of the first year: what started out as a purposely distanced blogging voice has grown more intimate over time, more willing to be Ray as well as some self-imagined professor of otaku studies. Your thoughtful responses are what’s to blame for that: once I get too comfortable around people, the porn anecdotes and cannibalism recipes inevitably become a part of the chatter.

All of which isn’t to discount the intellectual curiosity and the sheer pleasure of coming up with a different way to look at something. There’s enough Pynchon and DeLillo in me to see apocalypse in the modern everyday, and I’ve already written with my usual dispassionate passion on most of those aspects in the Why Jpop series. But if I just wanted to write dry academic pieces about pop culture, I’d have stayed in grad school and done that history of the direct comics market that was going to be my dissertation. What I enjoy is the bait-and-switch of narrative voices and intentions, the shell game even I can’t always keep track of.

The odd part is, having found a regular venue to express my most prominent neurotic tendencies, my return to fiction writing has been less soaked in that kind of self-obsessed rhetoric. Part of it is a sudden desire to write in a pulp style, but that may just be the cart following the horse. All the Nabokov and Roth influence is coming out in the blog, leaving – what? Hammett – and maybe DeLillo and a dash of Pynchon – in the fiction? There’s a chilling thought.

All of which is to tell you, dear readers: the Mikitty piece will be up no later than tonight. Having exorcised my demons of self-awareness yet again, I think we can get back to our usual programming without any more kicking and screaming. I hope you keep enjoying it.