Todd Shimoda   photo of Todd Shimoda  


Finding a Novel Aesthetic

The most challenging and interesting aspect of writing novels for me is integrating widely (sometimes wildly) disparate ideas and elements into a coherent narrative that pays off for the reader. In The Fourth Treasure a few of these elements include a 600-year-old Japanese calligraphy inkstone, a Kyoto private investigator's search for a calligraphy student, a graduate student's profound study of brain research at UC-Berkeley, the use of medical marijuana to treat painful multiple sclerosis symptoms, the intense and ultimately devastating affair between a sensei and his student, and a stroke-damaged calligrapher's abstract art that he creates to communicate emotion.

Novels, at least as we know them, have been around for a while, a thousand years roughly. The novel form, never strictly codified other than being a relatively long work of fiction, allows a wide-open examination of human nature in action. The elements of novels—character and place, plot and subplot, dialogue and description, conflict and resolution, theme and style—are fairly well established. In my novels, I like to play around with these elements, exploding them or stretching them to their limits. In the end, of course, these elements have to work together as a novel. The finished book must have a novel aesthetic.

Japanese and Chinese calligraphers use four treasures in their art: paper, brush, ink, and inkstone. In the novel, The Fourth Treasure refers to the Daizen Inkstone, the highly prized icon of a centuries-old venerable school of Japanese calligraphy. The head sensei of the school has an affair with one of his students—the wife of a wealthy, though nefarious, resort developer. She is also the daughter of a prestigious banker and her mother's lineage that goes back to Japanese lesser nobility. Then, just as the student is becoming a superior calligrapher, she disappears.

In the novel, the story begins twenty-some years after the affair, when the sensei has established a new calligraphy school, the Zenzen school, and he is now known as Zenzen sensei. He suffers a devastating stroke—a burst cerebral artery—which takes away his ability to understand and communicate language, including his ability to draw calligraphy. Yet he is able to create beautiful abstract art with his brush, art that seems to be a desperate attempt to communicate.

The sensei's stroke sets in motion the events of the novel. Hanako Suzuki, his ex-student, is now working diligently as a career waitress in a San Francisco Japanese restaurant, and is suffering the first painful stages of multiple sclerosis. She is also the mother of Tina, a first-year graduate student at UC-Berkeley's Institute of Brain and Behavior Studies.

Tina's lover is Robert Smith, who is obsessed with all things Japanese. He is a superb calligrapher who had just begun to study under Zenzen sensei. At Robert's behest, Tina visits the hospital to see what the sensei's condition might mean to his future as a calligrapher and teacher. Tina is enthralled by the sensei's strange art, which she brings to the attention of her mother as well as to her fellow graduate students and professors at the institute. This move will change her life.

To integrate all these layers and elements into a coherent story, I used the inkstone as the thread that weaves them together. Of course, there is always a danger in using an object, rather than a character, as a plot-connecting device. By itself, the object has no life, has nothing to say.

To overcome this problem I turned to an old Japanese aesthetic concept known as mono no aware. In essence, the concept defines a relationship between objects or events and the emotions we express when we experience them. The literal translation is "the inherent sadness of things." Mono no aware is about the hidden corners of things, the deeper meanings, not the superficial reactions we might have to something that affects us. A mono no aware event is not sentimental or symbolic, but rather a true feeling that floats calmly throughout the mind and body. It's what we feel when we experience something that makes us exclaim "oh!," when thoughts and feelings become fully formed.

Cherry blossoms are the prototypical mono no aware objects. They are tragically beautiful, coming out after winter's doldrums, trumpeting life for only a few days before they are gone. When one sees a cherry tree fully bloomed, it's hard not to stop and gaze at it, and maybe even dash off a poem. But is it the cherry tree itself that is intrinsically beautiful, or what we make of it? That question is at the core of how the characters react to The Fourth Treasure.

The inkstone has a different meaning for each of them, showing us that their emotions toward the inkstone are mostly a product of individual experience. And yet there seems to be something intrinsically powerful about the inkstone. How each uses this power provides insights into the characters and creates conflict and resolution in the story.

Of course, I have to admit that much of this seemingly well-planned structure and process didn't happen consciously as I began to write The Fourth Treasure. A lot of the time I was just putting down words, hoping to find something that would work. Hoping that the characters would start to find themselves and that the story would emerge.

The story idea itself began when Linda (L.J.C. Shimoda, the illustrator of the book) and I talked about the calligraphy lessons she was taking at a Japanese cultural and martial arts school in California. She explained how her teacher described the mind-body connection that was necessary to produce good calligraphy. During this the time, I was finishing my studies in cognitive science, which also studies the mind-body connection. At first blush these two approaches of art and science seem to be antithetical. However, the more I learned and wrote about each, the many connections between the two approaches made them seem more parallel, rather than divergent. Both have much to say about human nature, about how we think and feel.

I used these connections to tie the story elements together using the inkstone as the centerpiece, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. The characters began to evolve, until they became capable of telling their own stories. At this point, the novel aesthetic of The Fourth Treasure had emerged.

Knowing the aesthetic, "the feel of the novel," also allowed me to make structural and design decisions, especially how to incorporate intricate technical and philosophical aspects of shodô (the "way of calligraphy"), as well as fascinating yet complex aspects of the anatomy and functions of the brain. These tidbits are put in as sidebars, or marginalia, rather than into the main story. They are usually directly related to the main story, though sometimes less obviously so. Readers are free to read them as they are involved in the main story line, or come back to them.

Trying to incorporate the details into the story would work against the novel aesthetic, that is, they would interrupt the flow of the narrative. Likely, some readers would skim over those sections anyway if inserted into the story. And by putting them in their own place in the novel, they could be written in a tone and style that would make them more like the journal and notebook entries that they are. The sensei, who writes the calligraphy notebook, and Tina who writes the notebook on the brain, also add ruminations on the meaning of the details, how they contribute to their own self understanding.

Likewise, the novel's illustrations—calligraphy and abstract art—are incorporated into the sidebars and as section breaks. Describing Japanese calligraphy in words cannot really compete with seeing real brushwork, especially given the unique style that the sensei has developed living away from Japan. Seeing his abstract art he creates after his stroke is also critical to helping readers get the feel of what the sensei is experiencing as he struggles to express himself.

Throughout the novel are interludes showing the sensei and Hanako in 1970's Japan, as well as the inkstone's history of intrigue. Because these are longer sections, they are incorporated into the main story. At critical points, the past rears into the present, memories often provoked by the inkstone. These points cause the shift into the interludes, helping to pace the novel and maintain its aesthetic.

Each reader brings a unique perspective to the experience of enjoying a novel. And, just as the inkstone has different meanings to the characters in The Fourth Treasure, the novel will create different meanings and impressions on the readers. All I can hope to do as a writer is to be true the novel aesthetic, and allow the reader to be immersed in another world for a few hours.

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