A Book-less Character Lost in a World in Crisis

Woman with a Blue Pencil: A Novel, by Gordon McAlpine, (Seventh Street Books), 185 pages, release date 10 November, 2015

I almost missed Woman with a Blue Pencil in the rush of books released in early November—and I am so glad I didn’t! Gordon McAlpine’s novel deftly juggles the humorous, the surreal, and the serious, giving readers a “meal” that’s dessert and entrée in one.

Woman with a Blue Pencil is a series of three interwoven texts. The first is a mystery novel, the second editorial correspondence that inspired a revision of that novel, and the third the revision itself. This alone could make for a fascinating read, but McAlpine takes things further: the setting is post-Pearl Harbor California, the detective is Japanese American, later changed to Korean American at the request of the book’s editor.

Sam Sumida, the novel’s original hero is set adrift when the U.S. enters World War II shortly after the novel featuring him has been accepted fro publication. Sumida expects to be living in the world in which he was written: a world where a Japanese American detective makes for an unusual, but interesting detective. However, Pearl Harbor has left him blue-penciled and strangely unmoored. He’s searching for his wife’s killer, but everywhere he turns the world he once knew is dead. His home is occupied by strangers. He finds himself harassed and unwelcome in unexpected places. When asked in a movie theater if he is “a Jap,” a nonplussed Sumida finds himself thinking, “Sure, there were places Japanese immigrants and their Nisei offspring were unwelcome—for example the L. A. Country Club (except as a gardener). And plenty of others. Most places, actually. But he’d never felt unwelcome in a downtown movie house. He wasn’t a negro after all.”

Meanwhile, at the behest of Maxine Wakefield (Associate Editor, Metropolitan Mysteries, Inc.), the novel’s hero has become Jimmy Park, a loyal Korean American, trained in martial arts and determined to prove that he is nothing like the treacherous Japanese, no matter how often he’s mistaken for one. Wakefield is a particularly nasty sort of spin doctor, one who keeps pulling the manuscript from its original narrative, even as the author himself, Takumi Sato, is placed in an internment camp. She wants a novel that embodies “the intense patriotism that will appeal to today’s readers… focus[ing] on the specifically modern Japanese villains infiltrating our nation today.” In one P.S. she blithely wishes the author’s father “best wishes… for a speedy recovery from his beating at the hands of… marauding bullies,” and assures the author that royalties from the new, anti-Japanese version of the novel “could compensate for any lost income from his shuttered business.”

Given all this, reading Woman with a Blue Pencil is a multi-layered experience, both fascinating and deeply distressing. The book will have you rethinking what it is to be a writer and to be an American, both in the context of this particular historical moment of xenophobia—and in the endless parade of xenophobias that comprise our nation’s history.

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