Cecile Rossant, Tokyo Bay Traffic, Red Hen Press, 2008

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

A lot of the most exciting prose published in the last couple years is enlivened by the introduction of non-English elements. The Times Book Review made note of the way Spanish and the argot of geekdom gave wings to Junot Diaz's prose in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Likewise, the pressure of Slavic syntax gives the writing in Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man a concrete, impacted quality, an almost granular particularity of word against word. It has gotten to the point, though, where you wonder if monolingual English speakers can write the kind of prose worth talking about beyond the basics of plot, character, and setting.
      Cecile Rossant's Tokyo Bay Traffic lives in the middle of this conflict: her novel trades in the cultural exoticism of its Japanese characters and setting, and its plot dabbles in the performance of multiple identities; its realism is inconsistent and readily sacrificed to develop the writer's theme. But the real gambit of her book—the terms on which it succeeds or fails—is at the level of language: can Rossant find the words, the phrases and sentences, that will allow her to embody the shifting values at the heart of her imaginary economy, Tokyo Bay?
      Rossant's novel is trained on traffic, licit and illicit, in the book's titular city and the ambiguously real-irreal sprawl around it. Three characters figure prominently: Kang, a young salaryman who seeks to re-collect the experience he had one night watching a woman dance at a gray-market nightclub; Livia, a sort of performance artist who is also an exotic dancer, and who allows Rossant to explore themes of commerce and expression; and Ja-Ki O, a bar girl and hostess who has remade herself as part of the sex industry at the heart of Tokyo Bay Traffic's nightlife. It is Ja-ki O who transports Rossant's exploration of the ability to remake ourselves: once named Ki-Ku-Ko, she was a fun-loving young woman until an accident blinded her in one eye; marked by experience, her market value is increased and she is elevated in status from dancer to hostess. Likewise, Livia is marked by her bi-racial ancestry: a Japanese mother who teaches formal Western dance, and an American GI father. Livia's ability to blend these two elements makes her attractive as a woman and artist, and she is placed by an admirer at the heart of F.S.N.Y., an offshore pleasure palace and residential neighborhood. She works there on her art and Kang goes on a quest for her, a postmodern knight looking to rescue his lady from the castle where she is a willing captive. However, the plotted intersections of these characters, the various and sundry freights they carry in terms of thematic significance, are overshadowed by the writing itself.
      Instead of a prose enlivened by other tongues (like the examples I mentioned earlier), Rossant's prose here is holistic and complete, in the sense that it doesn't point to a reality or set of linguistic practices outside of itself for comprehensibility. Instead, there's a fullness to the way Rossant writes her sentences that turn inward, but when they do, we find they possess enough to feed on for a long time. Consider this sentence, a description of a dance troupe where all the dancers come together as one composite organism: "There are many women, arms entwined, legs entwined, legs spread open and torsos entwined: front to back, back to front, head to back, and then in comes the visitor: more click-clacking and a thud" (94). Note the way the sentence allows its figures to occupy several positions at once ("legs entwined, legs spread open") as well as the way it grows to encompass more raw matter ("in comes the visitor") reaching beyond itself in a manner reminiscent of The Blob, or the monster in the more recent Korean horror movie The Host. The way the novel is written gives it the ability to consume, to transform and transact. It's a novel that is interested in transformation and commerce (after all, "traffic" is in the title, and we're not talking here about rush hour and blocking the box), and Rossant has crafted a sentence style that allows her to simulate this through linguistic exchange.
      It's an odd experience, though, one that makes you wonder what you just read: in sentences where so much is unstable, where nearly anything feels permissible, any ending is bound to feel arbitrary, to make you wonder why not one more transformation. Likewise, it's hard to discern a final thematic stance on Rossant's part. It's easy to see how capitalism is bad and the sex trade especially is degrading, but I'm drawing these ideas from a world outside the novel, not from the novel itself: as much as Ja-Ki O is obviously in a bad way, it's harder to pin down what Rossant wants us to make of Livia's situation. And at the end of the novel, Kang hasn't been transformed like the others, which makes it feel like he stands in for an unresolved idea, a grain Rossant hasn't yet digested. The novel pulses and reconfigures itself so consistently that it feels like it might not be the same novel the next time you pick it up. If that's the kind of thing you like, then this is the novel for you. It fascinated me, to watch it twist and squirm, consume and evolve. But at the end, it felt like Rossant had abdicated any role for herself beyond recording the changes her sentences underwent instead of actively driving them. It's true, capitalism is powerful; but I wonder whether, as an examination of an idea, that conclusion is enough.