Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

The underlying theme that carries through the novel is the clash of culture—specifically American and Japanese but more generally Eastern and Western. Two other themes are the emptiness of the intellectual enterprise and, closely related, the hypocrisy that supports it.

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Borrowing Rudyard Kipling’s phrase "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," T. Coraghessan Boyle inverts the premise by introducing a character who embodies the untruth of the line. East did meet West in Hiro Tanaka’s parents, one of whom was from the United States and one of whom was from Japan. Hiro literally embodies the result of that meeting. Further, when Hiro travels from Japan to the United States, he must face the vast differences between his imagined America and the reality in which he lands. Hiro’s identification with not just his contemporaries but also with the ancient samurai ways further exaggerates his difference from the modern United States. The author places him in a hostile rural setting, a dense swamp, and then has him interact with symbols of urban life in the microcosm of the writer’s colony.

Ruth, the writer who seems to be helping Hiro, is actually exploiting him. She senses her inadequacy as a writer and knows she is not using her time well at the prestigious colony where she was lucky to be accepted. The more general phoniness of the entire intellectual world in which she aspires to gain recognition is shown by her interactions with various colony members. Literati—writers and critics alike—and musicians do not escape Boyle’s withering scrutiny. This irony is not lost on the reader, as Boyle himself is an award-winning author.

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Characters