Option Overload

Mako Yoshikawa's Debut Novel Suffers An Identity Crisis.

One Hundred and One Ways, by Mako Yoshikawa (Bantam). Cloth, $21.95.

DOUBTLESS, GOOD first novels have been brewed up in the workshop crucibles of college creative writing programs. The requirement to produce writing on schedule, along with the suggestions and criticisms of fellow students and experienced mentors, cannot be entirely without value. At the very least, the challenge of high standards and the stimulation to rethink and rewrite can inspire seriousness of purpose and self-awareness.

And then there's the old adage, "Too many cooks spoil the stew." The acknowledgments pages -- yes, pages -- in Mako Yoshikawa's One Hundred and One Ways suggest similar over-handling befell what is in many ways a very interesting debut.

The author brings strong personal credentials to a story about an Asian-American woman searching for an authentic cultural identity in Ivy League colleges and the career world of New York's Upper West Side. Yoshikawa's great-grandfather was Japanese Minister of the Army and her grandfather was chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission. Raised partly in Japan, she was born in the United States, and has studied at Columbia, Oxford and the University of Michigan, where she is pursuing a doctorate. Even more pertinent to One Hundred and One Ways: her great-grandmother was a geisha.

Yoshikawa brings knowledge, personal experience and intelligence to her desk, and these qualities show up plainly in her novel. However, the story and voice of the narrator, Kiki Takehashi, pull the reader in so many contradictory directions that tedium and confusion finally outweigh the novel's other merits.

Confusion isn't entirely out of character for Kiki, a young grad student living in an upscale apartment purchased for her by her mother -- an apartment she shares with the ghost of a former boyfriend, a rakish WASP wanderer named Phillip who has died recently while trekking in the Himalayas. At the same time, she is being courted by a charming and unstintingly generous Jewish lawyer, Eric, who is patient of her moods and understanding of her depression. This business would seem plenty for any novel of fewer than three hundred pages, and initially one expects Yoshikawa to explore as a theme Kiki's belief in a fetish of American men for Japanese women.

But Kiki's love life is only a partial link to the theme which gradually takes center stage: the relations -- real and imagined -- between Kiki and her mother, who years before eloped to America for a husband who abused and abandoned her, and her grandmother, who was a famous pre-war geisha in Japan. Kiki seems to believe that if she could only talk to her grandmother, whom she has not met but with whom she feels a mystical kinship, she would be able to make sense out of her own life.

Accordingly, the plot wanders episodically through the life stories of these three women, checking in now and then with Phillip's ghost and the increasingly frustrated Eric, who gets great sex from the would-be geisha Kiki, but not an ounce of commitment and honesty.

Parts of this are fascinating. Yoshikawa skillfully conveys the complex mixture of social standing and ostracism involved in the training and life of a traditional geisha. The awkwardness and betrayal of stealing a best girlfriend's boyfriend, only to be forgiven, provides an appealing sub-plot. A shy courtship between 60-somethings and the dotty ramblings of a lonely neighbor offer moments of poignant comedy.

Yet even allowing for the emotionally disturbed state of Kiki's mind, the story is too tumbled and the reaches too great, despite the satisfaction at the end of seeing grandmother and mother happily served while the self-absorbed Kiki, who has had every advantage, is left bereft. Even the ghost deserts her.

One Hundred and One Ways gives the impression of many small writing projects, tenuously related to one another as vignettes of the author's personal experience or family memory, cobbled together with an ambitious literary construction -- i.e., Kiki's dementia. There are two novels here, and the unconvincing psychological machinery fails to intertwine them.

Fine individual scenes, some good minor characters, and an absolutely convincing evocation of the environs of Columbia University give the patient reader some small rewards. All sincere thanks to teachers, classmates and editors notwithstanding, Mako Yoshikawa's career might have been better advised toward more rethinking, and yet another rewrite.

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