Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater

by William T. Vollmann

When I read and wrote about Vollmann's Imperial, a massive and self-indulgent exploration of Mexican California (and Californian Mexico), I commented on how I found our relationship as writer and devoted reader was becoming abusive.  Wading through that book was an exhaustive experience, not at all like the year I spent plunging through his entire Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume set of books about the origins of violence.  That book still has a place of prominence and pride on my bookshelf.  Imperial was a little too much.

And then, I decided to read Vollmann's latest, Kissing the Mask, a book about the portrayal of women in traditional Japanese theatre, a topic I had no interest or knowledge of.  But, I thought, it's Vollmann, so it's going to still have some dazzlingly well-written passages and bizarre connections that I'm going to enjoy.

Not so much.  I don't know what the genesis of this book was.  It can't have been much of a seller, and I don't see many publishing houses or editors clamoring to get their hands on something like this.  It reminds me a little of when musical artists, looking to complete contractual obligations with one record label, put out a crappy album just so they can move on.  Except, you can tell that Vollmann put a lot of thought, effort, and love into this project.

I suppose, if you were to find a reader with a love of Noh, a type of theatre known especially for its slowness and ability to put its audience to sleep, you would find someone very happy to read this book.  I will admit that it has made me learn a fair deal about Japanese traditions (there is some discussion of geisha and kabuki as well), and has given me cause to think a little more than I normally might about the difficulty that transsexuals have in 'passing'.

One hallmark of Vollmann's craft is the way in which he attempts to place himself in the milieu about which he is writing.  In The Rifles, this meant that he almost died in one of the most desolate areas of Canada's Arctic.  In Riding Toward Everywhere, this meant that he risked his personal safety and the structural integrity of his bones jumping onto box cars.  A recent Harper's article had him sleeping out on rainy nights in Sacramento's 'Safe Ground' homeless encampments.  In Kissing the Mask, however, he has a couple different make-up artists do his make-up, so he can look like a woman.  Sort of.  There are pictures.

The other hallmark of Vollmann's writing - the acute loss he feels when a relationship ends, barely is evident, until the very end of the book.  Instead, we get long meditations on the masks worn by Noh actors to portray female characters (the actors in Noh are usually men), detailed descriptions of how a young geisha prepares for the evening, and questions on the nature of snow in a silver bowl.  Vollmann has made a serious effort to understand this completely foreign style of theatre, especially since he doesn't understand the language.

In typical Vollmann fashion, there are diversions into the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, the description of women in old Viking texts, and some discussion of the works of Yukio Mishima.  In many ways, this is the least Vollmannesque book he's ever written, but I'm not sure that progress is being made in the right direction.

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