Kabuki Boy by Perle Besserman

Kabuki Boy
by Perle Besserman
Aqueous Books, March 2013
312 pages

*Reviewed by guest reader Kate Henning

Kabuki Boy, Perle Besserman’s ambitious portrayal of Japanese life at the end of the Tokugawa dynasty (1600 – 1868 C.E.), succeeds on many levels: it is lyrical, complex, poignant, and most importantly redemptive, both for the reader and for the egoistic characters within.

Written in the first-person limited with various perspectives throughout, Kabuki Boy opens, with a nod to the etymology of its form, in a novel and intriguing way.  A letter, ostensibly written by Murayama Yoso, the modern-day abbot of a Shofuji monastery in Japan, describes Yoso’s “discovery” of the works that comprise the main text. For the first two-thirds of this text, the reader will peruse the journal of young Nakamura, a boy actor-turned-priest who desperately seeks spiritual enlightenment.  The remaining third of the novel contains a series of letters written by Nakamura’s friends and acquaintances, a short play, and finally a record penned by the monk Gen, a man whose connection to Nakamura will come to define the lesson of the novel, as well as both men’s lives.  The novel is bookended by another letter from Yoso, placing the reader once again in the modern day and allowing her to apply the text to 21st-century life.

Although the panoply of forms and perspectives crafted throughout Kabuki Boy is certainly creative, Besserman’s artistry at times overshadows the content of the text.  Moreover, though Besserman likely intended the fictionalized Yoso to lend authenticity to the meat of her work, instead the abbot often serves to make the reader more conscious of the author’s manipulation, which, admittedly is already obvious; Besserman repeatedly chooses language that is too modern for the period, disrupting scenes and putting an end to the reader’s reluctant suspension of disbelief.  Falling short of postmodernism, Besserman’s endeavors ring phony and forced.

However, what Besserman lacks in authentic narrative she makes up for in beautiful imagery and in a plot to which modern-day readers can relate.  The central focus of Kabuki Boy is the end of cultural values as the characters know them.  The role of social hierarchy is called into question, as is the role of art.  Indeed, Besserman’s characters, most of whom are actors and performers, struggle to find meaning within an unusual social class.  As artists, they are repressed by an elite that on the one hand views them as threatening and subversive and on the other hand enjoys exploiting them for entertainment and sexual pleasure.  Still, though one might imagine the actors would embrace a change in the social hierarchy and an escape from such exploitation, Nakamura laments, “In the old days it was simpler.”  In the old days, actors had a different sort of power.

None of the major characters can truly be said to be ready for the inevitable change in social structure, since all of them in their own way benefit from the existing order.  However, they must all learn to adapt to the changes and also to deal with the cruelty they face, each a pawn in a system of trickle-down exploitation.  To do so, they fall back on art and its transformative, redemptive power to change an audience even after its members exit the theater.

As the scope of the novel widens, readers discover that Besserman has the same goal in crafting Kabuki Boy as Yoso has in sharing the stories he collects.  Like Yoso, Besserman yearns to connect with others and to preserve the stories of the characters she loves.  She urges the reader to pass these stories on, and in doing so she inspires the reader to share her poignant message. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Besserman writes, “since before your birth.”  You can almost hear the “dear Reader” in her plaintive cry for help.

*Kate Bradley was graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a double major in English Writing and Psychology in 2015.  She is currently in graduate school at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology.  During her free time, Kate enjoys running, spending time outside, working on her novel, and finding quality time with family and friends.


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