Sunday 4 July 2021

Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko

Gordon Vanstone is from Canada. After graduating with a Bachelor of Education from Simon Fraser University, he moved overseas and worked as an International School Teacher throughout Asia, including many years in Tokyo. Gordon currently lives in Singapore and works for an education company. Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko is his first novel.

After three years in Japan, Fred Buchanan is broke, unemployed and engaged in a telepathic turf war with a feral cat behind an Okinawa convenience store. Thus begins his metaphysical odyssey back to Tokyo and a search for meaning beyond the earthly path he's followed. Along the way, symbols and sages materialize in the form of a two-fingered jazz musician, the faded tattoo on an ex-yakuza lover, an odd brood of internet cafe refugees, and Yukie, an alluring hostess with a strange power imbued in the etched eye on her fingernail. Charging through Shinjuku's neon jungle, enveloped in a boozy, nicotine-stained haze, past and present collide as an empty orchestra croons a slow dance of people and place, memory and madness, loss and love. All the while, Fred struggles to be an agent of his destiny and not another ball bearing bouncing through the cosmic pachinko. 

So, over to Gordon... 

Tokyo is a bustling metropolis with a stoic bushido spirit, a concrete jungle where cherry blossoms shine alongside neon signs, and where one can find oneself feeling simultaneously lost and found. In this milieu, I knew Japan, and in particular, Tokyo was the perfect setting to examine dichotomies of the human condition.

I spent eight years in Japan on and off, most of it in Tokyo and a short stint in Okinawa, and held a strong affection for the place even after I'd left and was living in Singapore. I knew it was impractical to move back once again, though I discovered when I began writing Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko that part of the joy was in being transported back through the written word. In writing the novel, I focused attention on creating detailed descriptions of the setting in hopes of similarly carrying the reader to the Land of the Rising Sun through the pages of my book. So on one level, the novel is an ode to the country, which captured a piece of my heart.

When I wasn't teaching, exploring, or hanging out in Tokyo, my nose was likely buried in a book. I discovered and absorbed the country's great writers, from Sōseki to Mishima and Tanizaki to Ōe. Their novels enriched my experience, and as much as my story is a carefully crafted love letter to Tokyo, it also pays homage to these writers and their works, at times overtly, for example with a Mishima mask analogy, at others as cheeky nods veiled in the prose. And of course, there is a cat, long a narrative device deployed in Japanese literature.

Foreigners who write about Japan may be aware of the genre publishers have termed the 'My Year in Japan' book. I didn't want to write another run-of-the-mill gaijin in Japan story, so I was conscientious to deviate and elevate, through plot structure and prose, from this cliché category. Whether I was successful, well, readers will have to decide. But, part of my strategy in attempting to do so was to draw on timeless and universal themes. 

Borrowing from east and west, I went back to the classics and loosely, like a salaryman's tie during a 3 a.m. karaoke session, based the novels overlapping, intertwined and merging story arcs on The Tale of Genji and Homer's Odyssey. What emerges in this modern mash-up is an exploration of fate, destiny, regret, redemption, loss and love. 

The novel is narrated not from some obscure point in the future but in real-time by Fred as he holes up in a Shin-Okubo internet café. Following the advice of Jae-hyun, another internet cafe resident, Fred recounts a string of strange events which seemed to have conspired to lead him from Okinawa back to Tokyo. In this way, I could have the narrator reflect or give running commentary on the writing process; its highs and lows, the self-doubt, detours, breakthroughs and rewards which crept in or came about as I penned my debut novel. So when asked why I wrote this book, I answer that Fred says it best on the first page of Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko: "Sometimes you just have to scream into the abyss, if only to hear your own voice echo back."

Long an avid reader—a lover of poetry, prose, stories and literature—my desire to write became an itch that had to be scratched. Walking the bustling sidewalks of Tokyo or sitting on a bench simply watching the world go by, I'd ponder the story each person who passed possessed. This disposition, I'm sure, exasperated my artistic urge and led to the day when seemingly out of the blue, I decided I was going to write a novel.

It was after a year in Singapore, two years sober, at the beginning of the 2018 world cup, when I began writing in earnest. With a football match playing in the background, I'd tap keys into the wee hours of the morn. What started as an itch quickly grew into a habit and then an obsession. Within a few months, I had the basic story on paper, then started adding and subtracting, rewriting and reworking, editing and posting in writers forums until a couple of years later when it was something I felt confident enough with to try and get published and out into the world.

I'd sporadically kept a neglected journal during my years in Tokyo. A few maudlin poems and rough story starts, which were in the tattered pages of this old notebook, in some form or another, made it into my finished manuscript. The telepathic cat, a possessed and evaporated former guest house and Fred's metaphysical jaunts through Shinjuku's red-light were adapted from these earlier writings.

I've always been drawn to character-driven, simple stories, beautifully told—subtle, subjective or subversive. I've long idolized writers like Dazai, Salinger, Bukowski and Kerouac, who are alluded to through the narrative voice, and it was my intention to wear these influences on my sleeve. Initially, I conceived the novel to be a slow descent into madness in the tradition of The Bell Jar, No Longer Human or Big Sur. Though upon honest appraisal, I realized I didn't yet possess the writing chops for something so literary or nuanced. 

Keeping the flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator angle, I began to add elements of magical realism, which I found helped a bit with plotting and pace. A fan of Murakami, Márquez or Eka Kurniawan, I enjoyed working these components into the novel as they allowed my imagination to soar. The setting, Tokyo, with its electric, gritty, futuristic, Cyber-punk vibe coupled with Japan and its rich cultural history, folklore and myth, creates an atmosphere where the mystical and magical effortlessly emerge and seamlessly meld. 

While the novel's setting was significant to me and clearly influenced the writing as it took shape, my goal was for the story to transcend borders. My hope is for it to be accessible and relatable to anyone who ever felt lost in life, who struggled to find their way and grappled with the forces of fate and essence of destiny. 

Details: Rainy Day Ramen and the Cosmic Pachinko is published by Dollarbird in paperback and eBook. Priced in local currencies.