Matthew Amster-Burton’s Pretty Good Number One is more than pretty good – it is pretty damned good.
Because this is the age of the e-book, I couldn’t put my phone down while I was reading. This is not an exaggeration. The day I downloaded the book I walked to the bus stop, got off at the station, got on the train to Shinjuku, changed trains to get to Akasaka, crossed several streets in the process and did not get run over, and also did not look up from my phone at all. I did the same coming home, and the 20-minute walk home through nighttime suburbia was illuminated only by the glow of the screen, and I finished right before I hit my doorstep.
Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo (henceforth PGNO) is pretty much self-explanatory – an American family of three spends a month in the capital of Japan having exciting epicurean adventures. I remember thinking at the time of reading the introduction on his blog, damn, his voice, it’s so American. It strikes me as super American because I’m not. But one of the factors that led to me generating that conclusion was all the cultural references.
(Malaysians, can I just talk about the title for a second? Doesn’t it sound like the kind of thing you could totally say in a singsong Malaysian accent?)
PGNO is thoroughly salted and peppered with American cultural references, some of which I don’t get. My American cultural literacy level – not exactly high to start with – has taken a serious dive in the last few years, so processing some of the similes and metaphors took some Googling and guesswork. Tempura batter bits are likened to crispy Klingons. The Cheesecake Factory makes an appearance on a page about specialty restaurants. Who exactly was Norman Bates again? (Right, Psycho. I’ve never watched it.) The Empire Strikes Back was… a Star Wars movie? What is an AT-AT? What is Calgon and why do its ads feature beatific faces? Possibly one of the most American things about this book is when he refers to 90-degree weather. The rest of the modern, metric system-using world would die in that heat. And what is a sweaty Sasquatch, anyway?
But this is not a bad thing. It made the novel a lot more fun and colourful. I enjoyed PGNO, which picked me up and gently deposited me outside my insider’s cultural box so I could have another look at Tokyo, this time from his starry-eyed food-loving American perspective. All the everyday minutiae that blurred into the landscape of this city reemerged for me in the pages of this novel: the challenge of navigating a ramen ticket machine, kitchen drawers that are actually fish grills, the speed at which Tokyoites can slurp their noodles. Also, the byzantine trials of recycling.
I love his writing and attention to detail, how he tells you exactly what he’s tasting but also manages to conjure up in just a few sentences, the hows and wheres and whys of the eating. I like that he is a very cool parent. I love that his observations range from snarky to amusing to hilarious without being culturally offensive or reliant on stereotypes (comedians and writers, please take note…), such as when he refers to the plastic bags you get on rainy days here for your brolly as an ‘umbrella condom … similarly discarded after use’. You can’t un-see that one, ever. But I especially loved the following comment about kanji, which is on page 138:
Kanji are properly known as ideographs, not pictographs, because each one represents an idea,and because learning them makes you feel like an ideot. (Sorry.)
I laughed out loud upon reading that, and then pretended I hadn’t just committed a dreadful faux pas on the train. That pun alone was worth the price of the book.
There were a few minor things about PGNO that gave me pause, e.g. statements like ‘Japanese tea is weird’ or ‘If the average person knows anything about Japanese tea…’. Weird to who, exactly? Who is the ‘average person’ that we’re talking about here? (Also, enlighten me: when Americans say ‘knob’, does the vowel really sound like ‘a’ as in ‘far’?) It also set off a whole bunch of musings about how white Americans here are treated compared to other, say, less obviously foreign-looking faces… but anyway, that’s a whole different can of worms. At least he knows he’s talking from a privileged position!
All these are not faults of the novel, but rather my reaction as a non-white, non-tourist, Japanese-speaking can-visually-pass-as-local resident here. I am not exactly the target reader, since I live in Tokyo. (Also, many of the American cultural references flew right over my head.) But it was still a great read, and over far too soon.
By the way, have you ever listened to Spilled Milk? Reading the book feels like that, except this is a private podcast just for you, having him sitting across you in the kitchen telling you about all his adventures in Tokyo. Sometimes it’s a conspiratorial whisper, sometimes it’s a hearty laugh. Throughout he is completely besotted by Tokyo. It’s magical, he gushes. Sometimes, I forget that it is, and I’m glad PGNO reminded me. It’s also a reminder for me to get out of my dorm room, because there’s ramen waiting for me somewhere.
I really like the writing he puts up on his blog (when he updates, anyway) so when his Kickstarter for this travel book on Tokyo was announced, I backed it faster than I can rear-end the next driver on the road. His reply: I hope you’ll feel like I portrayed it accurately in the book.
You know what? He did pretty good.