Pico Iyer (review date 5 February 1996)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

SOURCE: "America, from Right to Left," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 6, February 5, 1996, p. 72.

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[In the following positive review, Iyer praises Audrey Hepburn's Neck as an unstereotypical and intimate portrayal of Japan.]

The first all but unfailing rule of foreign books about Japan is that they exult in the perspective of a bewildered outsider, not quite sure whether to be excited or exasperated by the science-fictive surfaces of that alien world. The second is that they find a focus for their mingled fascination and frustration in an unfathomable Japanese love object. The gracious and redeeming delight of Audrey Hepburn's Neck, a first novel by Alan Brown, an American, is that it turns all the standard tropes—and expectations—on their head by presenting Japan from the inside out, and yet with a sympathetic freshness that most longtime expatriates have long ago abandoned.

Daringly, Brown, a Fulbright scholar who lived in Tokyo for seven years, delivers his entire tale through the wide eyes of Toshi, a dreamy young illustrator from a northern village who loves America in part because he knows so little about it. He takes to drinking milk, goes to Tokyo to study at the Very Romantic English Academy (English schools in Japan really do have names like that) and falls in with various foreigners who return the compliment by idealizing him: Jane, a tattooed English teacher in red cowboy boots who mistakes intensity for intimacy; and Paul, a refined advertising agent who collects Japanese boys as if they were woodcuts.

Inhabiting Toshi's heart and soul with absolute conviction, Brown shows us how Americans might look to a confused admirer, with their "blue-tinged complexions," their "crayon-colored eyes," their habit of wishing on everything, even "when breaking dried chicken bones." In effect, he turns the usual "The Japanese are so strange!" cliché inside out. Toshi's unsteady American girlfriend suddenly says things like, "You think I'm awful, don't you? I am, I'm dreadful and I'm not pretty," and, where the Japanese tend to present images of happy families, Toshi notes, Americans "offer up their unhappy childhoods like movie plots, or like gifts." All this is set against the backdrop of the Crown Prince's dating Brooke Shields, protesting farmers dumping foreign rice, and "laid-off Toyota workers burn[ing] AMERICA=AIDS into the brush on the southern slope of Mount Fuji." While cultures fight, their products flirt.

Brown evokes the sleek surrealism of Tokyo—where dogs are rented by the hour and people eat green-tea tiramisu cake—with economical aplomb. Even better, he offsets such Tomorrow-land aspects with lyrical images of Toshi's rural home, where women eat grilled eel while watching Audrey Hepburn and go looking for candleweed and ghost mushrooms. Toshi is as much a foreigner in Tokyo as any American might be, yet his two worlds are knit together with an exacting precision, with fishermen's nets "the color of dried persimmon," and an American's blanket having "the color of squid just pulled from the sea." Like Audrey Hepburn, perhaps, Brown's art is meticulous and precise beneath its haunting surface.

As the book continues, we pass through many of the rites of an American coming-of-age story—a confounding love affair, memories of a distant childhood, a visit from a parent, the unfolding of family secrets—but all seen in a Japanese context, as if Brown had written an all-American tale to be read from right to left. And Toshi, with his shy charm, proves much more like Audrey Hepburn than any of the foreigners he meets. Going to bed with a dream and waking up with a nightmare, he begins to plumb the ironies of loving a culture that has destroyed many of his relatives. Gently, with sensitivity and tact, the very notion of "foreignness" is peeled away to some deeper level where passports don't apply. With the beautiful control of a born novelist, Brown shows us that clarity, as much as charity, begins abroad.

Mary Jo Salter (review date 24 March 1996)

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SOURCE: "Tokyo Prose," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 1996, p. 6.

[Salter is an American poet. In the following review, she lauds the imagery and figurative language in Audrey Hepburn's Neck but states that the book "sometimes staggers a bit under the weight of its author's desire to inject every possible theme into it."]

"What was the pivotal event, the thing that changed the direction of my entire life, that carried me halfway around the world?," asks Paul, a gay American living in the vibrant Japan of Alan Brown's first novel. "A photograph of Yukio Mishima in a loincloth. That's what."

Paul's friend Toshi, the young Japanese protagonist of Audrey Hepburn's Neck has no choice but to accept the American's take on the irrationality of human attraction—and its far-reaching consequences. Toshi is himself trying without much success to get out of a passionate mess with his lunatic, arsonist English conversation teacher, Jane Borden ("like Lizzy who chopped up her father with an ax," she explains cheerfully). She has specialized in Japanese men ever since, at the age of 15, she saw Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon. A gentler soul than Jane, Toshi was nevertheless sexually imprinted in much the same way: He traces his own obsession with foreign women back to his 10th year, when he and his mother, passing a thermos of green tea between them, sat spellbound before the image of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

Images are at the heart of this acute and acutely funny novel. Nearly all the people in it are powerfully swayed not only by mass media images ("Jane and her friends," Toshi reflects, "offer up their unhappy childhoods like movie plots") but by their own private, romantic stereotypes of the "other." (One of Brown's implicit themes is the erotic quality of foreignness, especially of foreign languages.) Sometimes—as Toshi learns when he sets off from his father's noodle shop in rural, remote Hokkaido to make his fortune in Tokyo—the "other" can even be an alien culture within one's own people.

Toshi is also a maker of images, a talented cartoonist in the childish manga tradition who, as he matures, will find a way within it to address his own grave family history. But the book's most notable image-maker is its American author who, in daring to see with the eyes of a Japanese character has embraced, gingerly but lovingly, the multiple identities of Japan itself.

This is a xenophobic country, as Brown only half-amusingly shows us, where tourist guidebooks for the Japanese warn that "foreigners carry AIDS and other diseases from abroad" and the prospect of imported American rice is reason to riot. (I hope Brown is exaggerating when he presents us with a computer game in which Japanese fighter planes perpetually strafe a cartoon Pearl Harbor.) And yet it's a country where fluency in English is as desirable an attainment as, say, fine calligraphy once was and is nearly synonymous with sexual happiness. Toshi meets Jane in the Very Romantic English Academy, in the Hysterical Glamour Building. What may well be the world's most incongruous country needs a novelist with a poet's gift for linking incongruities.

Brown's similes and metaphors are unexpected, as good ones always are, and yet on reflection seem inevitable. The young woman who eventually steals Toshi's heart steals ours because she has "short hair hooked behind her ears like window curtains pulled back to let in the sunlight." At an evening picnic, under cherry blossoms, "wooden chopsticks click like cicada legs." The rightness of Brown's imagery owes much to his cultural immersion: Japanese things are often viewed in terms of other Japanese things, not Western ones. A gravel road "tapers off to nothing, like a Zen conundrum." (This is the road to Toshi's childhood home, which indeed holds a terribly sad secret within.) My favorite image is of a green kimono, "the color of the seaweed you wrap around rice." It's not just the shade of green but the verb "wrap" that wraps kimono and seaweed together.

On a larger scale, Brown deftly juggles subplots that are in some way images of Toshi's quest for the perfect "other" to share his life with. Though the adult Toshi, unlike the child, doesn't actually hope to win Audrey Hepburn, he's forever half-consciously linking moments in his own life to scenes in her movies. (You have to be a Hepburn fan to identify them—like that attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in Sabrina.) Meanwhile, as Paul looks for romance in promiscuity, the Crown Prince is accepting formal applications from prospective brides. Even he isn't immune to Hollywood images; is it really true, after so many young Japanese women have enrolled in bridal training academies, that he plans instead to marry Brooke Shields?

As often with first novels, even short and charming ones like this one, Audrey Hepburn's Neck sometimes staggers a bit under the weight of its author's desire to inject every possible theme into it. The book casts at least a glance at nearly every social crisis and even geological challenge that has faced modern Japan: earthquakes so powerful they nearly obliterate the past; the smoldering anger, half a century old, of Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese army; an overcrowding in Tokyo so extreme that people don't actually own pets, they just rent them for the day. There are wobbly moments, too, when Toshi's English seems either better or worse than we've been led to believe.

But on page after page, Brown's touch, both as observer and stylist, is sure and accurate. Ultimately, I wouldn't want to delete the earthquake from the book, for then we'd lose the collapsed lighthouse "on the rocky promontory, its inner staircase a spiraling, bleached skeleton." It's a rare writer who combines such delicacy with a zany sense of humor: "Take my wallet. Take my wristwatch. Take my leather coat, please. Please don't shoot," runs the English conversation drill at the Very Romantic English Academy. And the affecting friendship of Toshi and Paul, who is openly in love with Toshi but never attempts again to seduce him after the first "no," is just one instance of the subtlety and reticence that make this book a serious one when it must be.

Elizabeth Ward (review date 24 March 1996)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

SOURCE: "A Superficial Look inside '90s Japan," in The Atlanta Journal/Constitution, March 24, 1996, p. K14.

[In the mixed review below, Ward praises the plot and characters of Audrey Hepburn's Neck but faults Brown's prose.]

This novel about today's Japan resembles one of those intriguing little washi-paper-covered boxes that open to reveal a smaller box nestled inside, which contains another and another and so on down to the very last box, which might be as small as a lima bean. Reading Audrey Hepburn's Neck is like unpacking, one after the other, every received opinion of Japan current among its foreign residents in the past few years. You are amazed that so much can be squeezed into such a slim package, yet you close the book feeling oddly unsatisfied, surfeited on surface impressions.

To his credit, Alan Brown has tried to give a new twist to his contribution to the crowded field of gaijin novels. His protagonist is not the typical wide-eyed or cynical foreigner, but a young Japanese male. Toshi is from the northern island of Hokkaido, so he is almost as much an outsider in the neon and concrete blur that is Tokyo as his American acquaintances are. The fact that he is Japanese at all lends at least the illusion of perspective to Brown's portrait of Toshi's foreign friends. But the question still nags: How authentic can the portrait of Toshi possibly be?

Brown came to Japan in 1987 as a journalist on a Fulbright fellowship and stayed seven years. Not much of what he experienced can have been left out of Audrey Hepburn's Neck, The title itself is a reference to the well-known Japanese adulation of the fragilely elegant actress, whose death in 1993 Japan publicly mourned. The noisy Rice Party and assorted right-wing demonstrators, all showing off Japan's oft-cited fear of foreigners' tainted rice and AIDS-contaminated blood, pop up continually. Cherry-blossom-viewing picnics, the controversial Russian-held northern islands, the crown prince's public search for a bride, Tokyo's gay subculture, the comic book craze and—most predictably, perhaps—the supersensitive issue of wartime "comfort women" succeed one another like images in a slide show.

As a result, Brown's characters are all, without exception, the kind of people journalists single out for their story leads: case studies, good for a quote, photogenic, a tad one-dimensional. Besides the representative cast of Japanese, from family to office colleagues, there is Toshi's English teacher, Jane, with her red cowboy boots and "seaweed green eyes," who turns out to have Fatal Attraction fantasies; Paul, the redheaded gay, lonely in his huge company-subsidized apartment; and Lucy, the sensitive artist type who saves Toshi from the legacy of his damaged childhood (details not to be revealed). Each of them is naturally a serious learning experience for the northern naif, whose rites of passage form the backbone of the plot.

The problem with the novel—plot, characters, ambience, everything—is that Brown simply does not write very well. Too often he relies on brand-name prose to do his work for him: "According to its brochure, the Very Romantic English Academy occupies the third and fourth floors of the Hysteric Glamour Building, upstairs from My Charming Home interior furnishings … and a Cherry Blossom Discount Camera Center." Not much better is his flat guidebook prose: "… the metallic skyscrapers of Shinjuku…. Abalone shells piled high outside a fish restaurant."

Worst of all is his earnest, post-recovery prose, which predominates toward the end, when everything starts to come together for Toshi and Lucy, not to mention Japan and the United States: "Together they are mining two languages to express new, shared ideas and beliefs. To find out that you are not the person you thought you were is exhilarating but exhausting. Who will he become? Who will Lucy become?"

Cultural ambassadors, maybe. But not, one hopes, novelists.

Deirdre Donahue (review date 29 March 1996)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375

SOURCE: "A Fascination for All Things Foreign," in USA Today, March 29, 1996.

[In the review of Audrey Hepburn's Neck below, Donahue gives a brief description of the novel and provides background information on Brown.]

Sitting in a little bar in Osaka, Japan, long before his novel was even a glimmer in his eye, Alan Brown wrote down the title Audrey Hepburn's Neck. It came from a conversation with the bar's owner, who explained the reason he had festooned his establishment with posters and photographs of the big-eyed star.

"'It was her neck,' he told me," recalls Brown, 45, from his New York apartment.

The eternal appeal of the other, the foreign, the alien forms the underpinning of Brown's magical first novel, Audrey Hepburn's Neck. Brown writes from the perspective of Toshi, a 23-year-old Japanese comic-book artist living in Tokyo and working on a strip called Chocolate Girl. Taking English classes at the Very Romantic English Academy, Toshi finds himself enmeshed in an affair with his drama-addicted American teacher. Stalked by the crazy Jane, he confides his troubles to his best friend, Paul, a gay American copywriter working in Japan. The novel also explores the secrets of Toshi's childhood on Japan's northernmost island, including the tragic reasons behind his mother's decision to live apart from him and his father when he was 8 years old.

What gave Brown the confidence to write a book from Toshi's viewpoint were in part the weekly journals he read as a teacher at Keio University, a prestigious private institution. For his writing class, Brown's students—reluctant to talk about personal issues—opened up on paper about their families, their dreams, their loves, their troubles.

"I just adored these students," says Brown fondly.

Brown spent 7 years in Japan; he first went there on a Fulbright grant for journalists. Then, he adds, "I never came home."

Ironically, the longer he lived and worked in Japan as a teacher and journalist, the less he felt like an authority on the Japanese. He dislikes the image of the Japanese as "very regimented and dour."

As befits a book with an actress in the title, its movie rights have already been sold to Wayne Wang, who directed The Joy Luck Club. Brown is currently writing the screenplay.

David Galef (review date 28 April 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Audrey Hepburn's Neck, in The New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1996, p. 23.

[Below, Galef provides a negative assessment of Audrey Hepburn's Neck.]

Toshi Okamoto, the hero of Alan Brown's first novel [Audrey Hepburn's Neck], is a hick from Hokkaido now living in Tokyo. His father runs a noodle shop back home; his mother left long ago to work in a rustic inn. Toshi has found his niche as a comic-strip artist by day and an English student by night, taking lessons at the Very Romantic English Academy. His small circle includes Paul Swift, a gay American advertising copywriter, and Nakamura, the comic-strip studio boss, whose idea of encouraging hominess in the office is to rent a pet dog by the hour. Toshi's own personal quirk is his fascination with Audrey Hepburn, which began when he first saw Roman Holiday at the age of 9. Since then, he's had a few foreign girlfriends, but nothing has prepared him for Jane Borden, his American teacher, who strikes up an acquaintance that ripens alarmingly into sadomasochistic sex. All of this is seen through the eyes of Toshi the naif, allowing Mr. Brown to slip in a lot of descriptions of modern Japan, from its comics-trip culture to the gay bar scene. Intercut with these present-day vignettes are Toshi's recollections of his lonely childhood, shadowed by the ever-present mystery of his mother's unhappiness. Yet most of the book remains curiously flat, and even its resolutions are somewhat tepid. If only Audrey Hepburn's Neck were as provocative as its title!

Jill Neimark (review date 18 September 1996)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

SOURCE: A review of Audrey Hepburn's Neck, in Bookpage (online publication), September 18, 1996.

[In the following positive review, Neimark states that "ultimately this charming tale of America and Japan is a tale of human tragedy and hope."]

[An] accomplished first novel out this season is Audrey Hepburn's Neck, by Alan Brown, a Fulbright scholar who lived in Tokyo for seven years. It is the story of Toshi, a delicate, polite, Japanese illustrator who is fascinated by all things American, particularly the mesmerizing white beauty of Audrey Hepburn's neck, which he saw in a movie as a young boy. Seen through Toshi's eyes, America erupts, fierce and volcanic, untidy and mysterious, like the Niagara Falls in comparison to a bonsai tree. Toshi's American girlfriend, Jane, has an albino tiger tattooed on her breast, is sex-mad and manic-depressive, writes him love-obsessed letters in red envelopes, and ultimately sets fire to his flat.

Toshi's version of America, both surreal and comical, rings true: "Jane has a pocketknife. Does she have a gun too? Does it even matter? Toshi's seen it in the movies and on the news: Anything can be a murder weapon in the hands of an American. They kill each other frequently, nonchalantly, and with everyday objects—hammers and golf clubs. Plastic dry cleaning bags. He picks up his fork and examines the sharp prongs."

The novel works so well because, deep beneath the still reserve of Toshi, a reserve as perfect and flawless as Audrey Hepburn's neck, is tumult and pain, passion, and heartbreak—all that he sees as so foreign and American. His own past carries a mystery as vivid and heartbreaking as any American's. Ultimately this charming tale of America and Japan is a tale of human tragedy and hope.

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