Cynthia Kadohata | Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Cynthia Kadohata.
This section contains 802 words
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Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

SOURCE: "Past Imperfect, and Future Even Worse," in The New York Times, July 28, 1992, Sec. C, p. 15.

In the following review, Kakutani criticizes the inadequate plot structure of In the Heart of the Valley of Love while praising Kadohata's "obvious talent" as a writer.

In her luminous first novel, The Floating World (1989), Cynthia Kadohata gave readers a meticulously observed portrait of a Japanese immigrant family's experiences during the 1950's. In her latest book, she makes a fast-forward leap into the future, abandoning the emotional intimacy of that earlier book to create an apocalyptic picture of America on the brink of civil disorder and social collapse.

The year is 2052, and Los Angeles has become a frightening, frightened city, ceaselessly patrolled by police helicopters and squad cars. Water and gas are rationed, and nonsynthetic food is hard to find. People are randomly arrested and jailed; some disappear completely. Cancer rates have soared, and strange new diseases—one of which causes the skin to break out in small, black pearls—afflict the old and young. Historians are saying "the Dark Century" has arrived.

"I didn't think conflagration was coming," says Francie, the novel's narrator. "Conflagration was destined to fall. Collapse was coming. The city had been deteriorating for a long time, and it was just that the rate of deterioration seemed to be increasing"

Like much recent futuristic fiction, In the Heart of the Valley of Love doesn't offer a radical, sci-fi vision of a brave new world; it simply delivers an imaginative extrapolation of contemporary reality. Beverly Hills and Brentwood (referred to as Richtown) are still the enclaves of the wealthy; East and Central Los Angeles are still menaced by gangs. Deconstruction is still fashionable at colleges, and Disneyland is still a popular tourist attraction. Drive-by shootings have increased, and so have riots and arson.

Ms. Kadohata's heroine, Francie, a 19-year-old Japanese-American, is a child of her times: edgy, street-smart and detached. Her parents died when she was young, and she notes that "people became sick and died so abruptly that you hated to love anyone." Francie is superstitious, self-reliant and very literal-minded. "When people told jokes," she says. "I never got the punch line because I was too busy thinking. But how did this rabbit learn to talk? Or, Why can't something as powerful as a genie manage to get out of a bottle?" She spends her free time taking care of her plants, and talking to a pair of rocks she refers to as her parents. She isn't a whole lot of fun.

Since her parents' death, Francie has lived with her Aunt Annie and her aunt's boyfriend, Rohn: two enormously fat people who love teasing Francie and each other. After Rohn mysteriously disappears and Francie is hit by a car, Francie decides to go back to school. She enrolls in a community college and begins working for the school newspaper. There, she meets Mark: a sarcastic entrepreneur, who will become her boyfriend; his best friend, Lucas, a former gang member who always wears a necktie, and Jewel, a wisecracking woman who is constantly breaking up with her abusive lover.

The remainder of In the Heart of the Valley of Love is made up of disjointed episodes in which Francie and her friends have assorted adventures. They use the newspaper to champion the cause of a student they believe has been falsely accused of murder. They desultorily investigate a school administrator who has allegedly been sleeping with students in exchange for passing grades.

Mark and Francie campaign to get Jewel away from her violent boyfriend. They spend a strained evening with Jewel's parents. They drive to the desert to look for Rohn. They get tattoos.

None of these incidents really add up to a story: none of them really illuminate Francie's state of mind. In fact, the intuitive sympathy Ms. Kadohata demonstrated for her characters in The Floating World is almost completely lacking in this volume. She seems uninterested in exploring the inner lives of the people in "Heart of the Valley," uninterested in describing the complex emotional geometry that connects them to one another. Instead, she seems intent on using their adventures as a kind of loose armature on which to drape assorted observations and descriptions of the world in 2052.

Unfortunately, Ms. Kadohata's vision of the future is not sufficiently original or compelling—the way, say, Denis Johnson's was in Fiskadoro—to sustain this sort of approach. As a result, "Heart of the Valley" is an uncomfortable hybrid: a pallid piece of futuristic writing and an unconvincing tale of coming of age.

If Heart of the Valley feels like a misconceived project, however, it should not detract attention from Ms. Kadohata's obvious talent. The writing in this volume is lucid and finely honed, often lyrical and occasionally magical. One looks forward to—and expects better things of—her next novel.

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This section contains 802 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani
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