Alan Brown Criticism - Essay

Pico Iyer (review date 5 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

[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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Mary Jo Salter (review date 24 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Elizabeth Ward (review date 24 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Deirdre Donahue (review date 29 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.