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Gai-jin Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel

Updated on January 18, 2016
Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere graciously thanks you for your stamp money, which he uses to finance his lunchtime reading habit and resulting book reviews.

Join Mel for a literary lunch as he reviews Gai-jin, by James Clavell, and tries his best not to get crumbs on your letters.
Join Mel for a literary lunch as he reviews Gai-jin, by James Clavell, and tries his best not to get crumbs on your letters. | Source

When Big Books Implode

I love big books. Not big books really, but massive, industrial door-stop certified books that sink me deliciously into intricately detailed worlds populated by complicated characters that I fall in love with over the course of a prolonged stay in their literary lives. When I read Tolstoy's War and Peace, a massive tome numbering some 587,000 words, I felt like I had become a part of the extended Bezukhov-Rostov clan, and I think a tear fell from my eye when I turned the last page and realized I was being forced out onto the street from their happy home. Victor Hugo's 655,000 word behemoth Les Miserables also thrilled me and stirred my sympathies for its hero Jean Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette, as it delivered a very tearful and uplifting ending as well. Just don't ask me to sing any of the show tunes; I've never seen the musical. Heck, I even enjoyed Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, weighing in at a hefty 645,000 words, although I have shaken off its over simplified Objectivism philosophy as I have become older and wiser (read jaded). I also got tired waiting for the musical rendition of this magnum opus for no holds barred capitalism to appear on Broadway. It would have been lovely and heart wrenching to see John Galt's 100 page philosophical manifesto set to the tune of some upbeat orchestral accompaniment, but I'm over that now.

The point is, I don't back down from a big book. They don't intimidate me. Bring it on b**ches, I say, let's see what you got! Big books are especially suitable for my letter carrier lunches. If I lug along a formidable read to digest in half hour increments during my midday pause, I don't have to constantly be changing them out, forever running back and forth to peruse the shelves of my local Goodwill for something suitable, or sneaking into my son's room in the middle of the night to jack a novel from his collection.

Therefore, the novel Gai-jin, by author James Clavell (of Shogun fame), seemed to meet all the criteria. Although not quite measuring up to Randian or Hugoesque standards, it was still pretty bulky, 1,234 pages in its paperback form, consuming 78 of my postal lunch breaks to take me to its ending. All told, I had been reading Gai-jin since September 9th of 2015. When I finally reached the end on Friday, January 8th of 2016, however, I really had to ask myself - what for?

There were bad portents with Gai-Jin from the beginning; signs from the literary heavens that something was amiss with this book, portents that started to appear immediately after I found it in the used book collection at the local Goodwill. Although I gave a fist pump and a little celebratory dance step as I picked it up - having thoroughly enjoyed reading Shogun, by this same author, decades ago while in the employ of Uncle Sam's Navy; things started to unravel from the beginning. Yes, I understand I bought a used book, and perhaps time had taken its toll upon the paperback's delicate bindings, but on day one pages started to fall out of it. It was almost as if the novel was imploding under the unbearable weight of its own word count, and it was disgorging pages to relieve the pressure.

The unfortunate part about Gai-Jin is that I could have completely skipped these regurgitated leaves without missing anything. If ever there was a justification for a Reader's Digest condensed book, a literary form that I thoroughly despise, it would be Gai-Jin. But knowing what I know now, I still wouldn't even read the condensed version.

Gai-Jin really should have been given the old literary squeeze.
Gai-Jin really should have been given the old literary squeeze. | Source

The Rules

If you have read my previous Lunchtime Lit Reviews, which I presume you haven't, you already know, or don't remember, that my rules for it are rigid and without compromise, except when I declare them to be compromised. The book must be read only on my half hour Postal lunch break, never being lugged home to sneak surreptitious sessions on the porcelain reading chair or while snuggling in for bed. The integrity of my Lunchtime Lit reading adventure remains intact, and below is a recap of the books I have reviewed thus far under these flexibly rigid criteria:

Lunchtime Lit Recap

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
 
Shantaram
933
387,047
4/27/2015
7/20/2015
46
 
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
607
175,000 (Est.)
7/21/2015
9/8/2015
28
 
Gai-Jin
1234
487,700
9/9/2015
1/8/2016
78
 
Gai-jin author James Clavell, probably contemplating how many drinking scenes he has to include in Gai-Jin to make his 1,200 page minimum.
Gai-jin author James Clavell, probably contemplating how many drinking scenes he has to include in Gai-Jin to make his 1,200 page minimum. | Source

A Little Background with No Spoilers, Because It Is Already Spoiled

As in Clavell's 1975 blockbuster bestseller Shogun; which was universally praised by at least three people I knew, then turned into a magnificent mini-series that I have never seen - Gai-jin is also set at a pivotal moment in Japanese history. Before I really get started I'm going to print the disclaimer that I loved Shogun. I loved everything about the book; it was probably one of the five most captivating novels I have ever read, and the poetic prose of the ending blew me away. I am going to keep repeating this mantra at regular intervals, because author James Clavell was known for his right of center political views, and I know at least one troll out there is going to comment that not liking Gai-jin must signify that I am a raging commie pinko liberal. When I read a book, I don't judge it on the political slant of its author, but all the same somebody is going to accuse me of this, no matter how many times I say that I loved Shogun - written by the same author of Gai-jin, which I didn't like much.

In reviewing Gai-jin, I'm not going to include spoiler alerts to warn you about any important plot twists or revelations. The thing is spoiled already, you can't really spoil it much more. If I give away the entire plot here you won't be too outraged, because you will avoid spending four months slogging your way to the end, trying not to swallow flies as you eat your lunch under a tree not too far from several horse farms, like I did. You might even thank me for giving you the spoiler, because then not only will you not have to share your lunch with six legged winged vermin, but you'll also have a justification for not continuing to waste your time reading this book.

As in Shogun, the setting for Gai-jin is Japan, this time in 1862, roughly a decade after American Commodore Matthew Perry's opening of Japan, if you round off. The story opens with Samurai attacking Europeans on the Tokaido road. Foreigners are derisively called Gai-jin by Japanese, and are particularly hated by a secret cell of ronin samurai called shishi, who are a little put off by foreign economic exploitation of their country. The book then spends the next 1,200 pages trying to figure out how all the uncounted millions of Japanese people should be punished for the actions of two. Darn those Japanese for not letting us freely loot their natural resources! - seems to be the prevailing attitude of every important non-Japanese character in the story, and I suppose James Clavell expects that this Euro-centric point of view will produce deep empathy in the reader.

Why Torture Yourself? This One Is Infinitely Better

Characters

The Namamugi, or Kanagawa incident; upon which the novel Gai-jin is loosely based, certainly has potential to make a fine story, but Clavell fails to execute. In saying this, I remind the gentle reader once more that I adored Shogun, I thought it was a magnificent novel, and I am not judging Gai-jin based on the author's political orientation. The primary problem with Gai-jin, if I had to sum it up in a few tidy words, is that I just didn't care about any of the characters. The male lead in the story is Malcom Struan, the scion of a powerful Hong Kong based trading family, who spends his time licking his wounds suffered in the attack by Japanese Samurai taking umbrage at the fact that he wants to economically rape their country; this while quaffing down bottles of pain-killing opium and fuming over the fact that his mother won't let him go out with the girl he wants to. Said girl is a buxom French floozy who is down on her luck and clearly seems out to take advantage of this young man's fortune by marrying him, even after dalliances with a forbidden Samurai. We can kind of understand why Mommy doesn't want her son to marry this Gallic gold digger, but all the same Clavell tries to convince us that we should love the Marseillaise-singing money grubber too, even though most of her natural charms seem to be constricted by her bountiful but very proper Victorian era, but definitely not Victoria's Secret, brazier.

On the other hand, in Clavell's signature work Shogun - which I thought was absolutely marvelous in case you were going to accuse me of being a namby-pamby bleeding heart for not liking Gai-Jin, the main character is infinitely more interesting. This man is John Blackthorne, and he is the pilot of an English ship that is blown ashore on the coast of Japan. Blackthorne is thousands of miles from home, something the reader can identify with because we have all been lost and far from home at one time, sometimes in a strange place where people are trying to steal our automobile's hubcaps. Blackthorne is held prisoner in a pit and is subjected to countless indignities before using his wits and his nautical skills to gain favor with all the right Japanese in all the right places. The plot twists of Shogun are very interesting and move along quickly. In GaI-Jin, on the other hand, when not occupying themselves staring at the bosom of principal female personage, the main characters spend a lot of time drinking and plotting how they are going to punish those insolent Japanese for daring to defend their own country. Then they never get around to it until about page 1233; by which time the reader has long since stopped caring.

Clavell's Shogun had a lot of interesting characters, like John Blackthorne and Mariko, pictured here.  Gai-jin had none, which is why I didn't include any pictures.
Clavell's Shogun had a lot of interesting characters, like John Blackthorne and Mariko, pictured here. Gai-jin had none, which is why I didn't include any pictures. | Source

Have you read author James Clavell? If so, rate him.

3.8 out of 5 stars from 4 ratings of James Clavell

Slow Motion Replay of Yesterday

There were times while reading Gai-JIn that I had to stop and check my dog ear bookmarks, because I was almost certain I was reading the same thing I read yesterday. Not once did I discover that I was re-reading the same pages, but it was really difficult to tell, and it forced me to keep track of my progress more diligently than usual. Reading Gai-Jin is sort of like an NFL instant replay, where we fans at home are forced to rewatch the same clip of the same play from different angles, to determine if the fumbling running back's knee was down before he coughed up the ball. While this is just fine when you have a 20 dollar bet on a point spread, it just doesn't work in recreational literature.

To make it better, I think Gai-Jin could have been compressed, at least by half. To start with, perhaps Clavell could have eliminated a lot of the drinking scenes. Drinking can be fun in good company, but Gai-Jin devotes a lot of unnecessary space to the serving up of Scotch whiskey, Brandy, Champagne, Sherry, Ale and Port, among countless other drinks I am forgetting here. Not a scene goes by where his characters are not consuming something of an alcoholic nature. In all fairness, Clavell is at least multi-cultural enough to include some generous portions of Sake in the mix, but I think that if he took away half the sentences that involve the pouring of various libations, the book would be a good 50 pages shorter.

There are fleeting moments in Gai-Jin where Clavell's writing almost carries us to Shogun-like heights, but then fizzles out again. The novel is readable in half-hour increments, but anything over that and I think I would have been keeled over in the driver's seat of my postal vehicle, snoozing away and probably drooling on your mail. At least I can say that at 1,234 pages, Gai-Jin would have made a fine pillow. Did I mention that I loved Shogun?

Was Gai-jin's literary knee down?  Let's watch again.
Was Gai-jin's literary knee down? Let's watch again. | Source

James Clavell on Shogun and Other Things

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    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California

      I really only enjoyed reading Shogun, aesta1, even though I read them all in the false hope that one of the other books might come close. I have never heard of Amitav Gosh, I will have to investigate. Thanks for dropping in.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 17 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I enjoyed reading James Clavell's novels and so I was happy to see tour review. You're so disciplined in your approach at reading. It's admirable. Anyway, you might also enjoy Amitav Gosh's books.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      I kept waiting for it to get better Larry, but it never came through. Kind of like my life in microcosm. Thanks for reading!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 19 months ago from Oklahoma

      Always enjoy your in depth reviews.

      Nothing like investing a lot of time in a thick book that turns out less than impressive, lol.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      You are welcome Devika. I hope you will do the right thing and read Shogun instead. Thanks for dropping by!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 19 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Informative and interesting read. Thank s for informing me about this book.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Shogun was a pretty fair read, Deb. I can't believe you would ever have time to read a book, as busy as you are chasing birds around a lake with a camera. Gai-jin would put you straight to sleep and whoops! - there goes that once in a lifetime Ivory billed woodpecker right past your dormant lens. Thanks for reading!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 19 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      You have convinced me not to go anywhere near this book. How did you like Shogun by the same author?(grin)

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 19 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Yep, she did write The Good Earth. Hope you enjoy Pavilion of Women, when you get to it.

      Cheers!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Shyron. The soap opera analogy is a fitting one indeed. Soap operas might work on television, but I really believe that in a novel every word should count. Some writers fall in love with their own verbosity, and James Clavell seemed to believe he owed it to his readers to give them a longer book every time after Shogun, as if length alone made the story. After Shogun, his books got longer and increasingly less interesting. One of my favorite stories is Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and that weighs in at about 100 pages. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Vagabond Laborer. Even though I work some 50 plus hours per week at the post office, I look upon it as my part time job, and writing is my full time profession. In reality, writing is much more than a job, it is a state of being. I appreciate you dropping in with uplifting comments.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. Having read all of Clavell's work now, I would have to say that Shogun is the only one worth the time. The others I could have done without. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      MizBejabbers, in Gai-jin there are a lot of characters looking to die dramatic deaths as well. Even though 200 years have passed since Shogun, nothing much has changed. This death mentality embraced by the Japanese of that era is definitely difficult for we Gai-jin to understand. Thanks for reading!

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 19 months ago from Texas

      Mel, thank you for telling me what not to read, this Gai-Jin sounds like a soap in a book form, where by if you miss a few hundred pages, you feel like you pick up where you left off, as in a soap if you miss a week or two when you come back you don't notice that you missed a two weeks worth of episodes.

      Thanks for telling me what to stay away from.

      Blessings my friend and happy reading.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Didn't she write The Good Earth Jennifer? I loved that book, I'll have to read the one you recommend. Thanks for reading!

    • Vagabond Laborer profile image

      Vagabond Laborer 19 months ago

      Mel--great review! As you probably already know, you're a wonderful writer. When you retire from your job as a postal worker, I hope that you can write full time.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting and amusing review, Mel. I have never read any of James Clavell's work, but I might read Shogun now that I've discovered that you really liked it!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 19 months ago

      What a hefty tome and what a hefty book review. I would never have the patience to write one so intricate. Congratulations on a fine review. I haven't read Gai-jin, in fact, I haven't read Shogun and don't plan to because I saw the miniseries many years ago. I really liked it except for one thing. The heroine, was her name Mariko?, seemed to think she could solve all of Japan's problems by dying. Every time the show got good, she interrupted it by trying to kill herself, and I got extremely tired of hearing her utter the phrase "by my death." It was almost a relief when she finally did herself in. Now having said that, and reading your review, I have no desire to read Gai-jin. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 19 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Oh my, I loved this Hub! I love Japan, and I love snarky book reviews. And you loved Shogun. Ha!

      May I recommend Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      So you are like me Eric, prowling the cheap shelves for a bargain book. I'm glad you backed up my Gai-jin review, I was thinking it was just me. Thanks for dropping in!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 19 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Delightful reading. I had no business reading this as I started reading this book twice and finally returned it to the second hand store without even getting an exchange. I can just see you yawning under a tree in our beautiful Horsey village.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you FatBoyThin. I am still partial to papee myself, although a book as big as Shogun could cause carpal tunnel it is so darn thick. I recommend you read Shogun. I've read all of Clavell's books, and that is the only one that I really have fond memories of. Thanks for reading!

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 19 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thank God! At last a book I can cross OFF my reading list! Seriously, I'm ashamed to say I never got round to reading any of James Clavell's work, though I always meant to read Shogun. Big books tend to scare me and it's only since I got a Kindle that I can take them on (not having hundreds of physically unturned pages to get through is much easier). Great Hub Mel.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      That sounds like a good read, Jodah, I'll have to check that out. Gau-jin was forgettable, which is why I had to warn people about it. By the way, i really liked Shogun too. Did I say that already? Thanks for reading!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 19 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks for sharing this review Mel. I too loved Shogun (both the book and the mini series with Tom Cruise). I have a vague feeling I read Gai-jin or attempted too, but if so it was definitely forgettable.

      One book I could recommend in a similar vein to Shogun but set mainly in Hong Kong and China is a novel called "The Second Sunrise" by Geoff Pike. It is a 614 page epic but too me was enjoyable to the end. He wrote a sequel "Tiger Dawn" which continued the story and, although it was ok, it couldn't live up to the first book.

      I do tend to enjoy the longer epic stories as long as they are well written and hold my attention. Oh, by the way, did you really like Shogun?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Eldon, coming from a true srtist like you, that means a lot. There are a lot of non Euro sorytellers out there, and Murakami is one. I hope you like Wind Up Bird, it is fun to sample writers who are not staples on the NY Times bestseller list. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      I know you have a 1000 page book in your blood Svetlana. Russisn winters are long and cold, and your people write thick books to keep their fingers warm. Frenchman Hugo, on the other hand, just digressed a lot. Les Mis was only about a 200 page story, with a lot of filler. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      I have the attention span of a three year old with a bottle of Mountain Dew, Bill, which is why I read in half hour spurts. Mountains are climbed in small steps. Thanks for reading!

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 19 months ago from Cooley, Texas

      Man, Mel, I dig what you write. Just purchased The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle after reading your review of it, though this time I think I'll skip on Gai-Jin. Nevertheless, your opening statements on length were very engaging. I don't know any other way to put why I like what you write, without sounding sycophantic. But, I'm glad you're here.

      Your words and ideas add up and equal with the best,

      -E.G.A.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 19 months ago from California

      Congrats on finishing another hefty tome! I see you have a Japanese theme going here... And nice use of Randian and Hugoesque - I always learn something from you :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 19 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I stand in awe of you. Anything over 400 pages and I'm done. I evidently have the attention span of a hormonal teenager when it comes to reading. :)

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Jonas. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 19 months ago

      Good hub, Mel!