By Rob Payne
Sushi Daze, which may be the worst title given any novel published in the past year, is CanDickLit. DickLit is derived from ChickLit and is the name given to fiction dealing with the adventures of hip young urban men. If the fact that there’s a name for it makes it seem formulaic, that’s because it is. In Sushi Daze Jamie Schmidt leaves his dead-end radio job in Toronto to go teach English in Japan. Five years ago another young Canadian writer, Jim Munro, parodied this same plot-line in the Sci-Fi novel Angry Young Spaceman, where the hero travels to the planet Octavia (read: Japan) to teach English to a local population of squid. So Payne clearly isn’t breaking any new ground.
Jamie is a very typical DickLit construction. He is smart, hip, charming, and never at a loss for a snappy come-back. He is 30 years old and is now looking for the “all-consuming passion” that he wants his life to be about. He imagines a future where he is older and less hip and it terrifies him. He does not want to grow up to join the “doomed army of citizens . . . marching along the sidewalk, loaded with bags and briefcases, going nowhere.” In fact, given a choice he would prefer not to have a job, or even grow up, at all.
Japan beckons. In Japan a gaijin (foreigner) is by definition someone special, someone who stands out from the crowd. Despite being a new employee in a large corporation, as a teacher he is looked up to as a figure of authority and special knowledge. It sure beats working for the radio station.
Is Jamie superficial? He admits as much, saying he is “more comfortable on top of emotion, not in the depths.” He hates being alone. Like most hipster writing Sushi Daze is primarily concerned with social interaction, not introspection. Its world is like a university residence. Jamie has crazy roommates, drinks a staggering amount of alcohol, takes drugs, goes to parties, never seems to worry about money, and gets all the babes he wants. DickLit also has a literal meaning.
It’s a remarkably narrow view of life, even for a young man, but Jamie honestly feels that his apartment shenanigans can “be viewed as a microcosm of the world.”
The Japanese we meet are just the usual stereotypes: materialistic workaholics obsessed with Hello Kitty and Tom Selleck. They speak in pidgin and can’t pronounce their “r”s. They aspire to Western hipness, but the fate of Jamie’s Japanese girlfriend (used and then callously disposed of so he can take off after his true love, a stunning Australian blonde) reminds us of the real gap between us and them.
The writing is quick and lively, filled with the usual pop-culture riffs and witty repartee. It is television reality. Hipness is all. One young man is actually described as a “funky young cat.” The words “existential” and “karma” are frequently used, but only to signify in the former case something deep and in the latter the belief that we all get what we deserve in the end.
Payne is a fun writer, but Sushi Daze can’t rise above the insufferable superiority of its narrator. We might excuse this in a portrait of the artist as a young man. It’s natural to want to cheer for a lost creative spirit, a rebel against bourgeois conformity, “moving towards love and away from loss, but never giving up the fight for experiences.” But Jamie’s fight for new experiences is not the first step in becoming an artist, or a quest to burn with a hard gem-like flame. He doesn’t want to do or be anything. We leave him emphatically rejecting the idea of making any kind of life plans and still hating the thought of growing up. At 30.
So instead of life following a plan it follows a formula. One of shallow privilege, smart dialogue, alcohol and sex. Sushi Daze might have been clever 10 or even 15 years ago. Now much of it already seems outgrown.
Review first published February 19, 2005.