Every so often it happens this way: An otherwise forgettable book has the good fortune to be published just as a huge national controversy reaches its crescendo. The book becomes part of the controversy, analyzed on editorial pages and in news stories as well as in book reviews. Soon the work has a life of its own, utterly independent of its literary merits.
How else to explain the furor over Rising Sun, the latest techno-thriller by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park). A poorly written anti-Japanese polemic thinly disguised as a murder mystery, Rising Sun began appearing in bookstores this month just after President Bush returned from his disastrous trip to Japan, and at around the same time that a few Japanese officials were publicly calling American workers lazy. The book immediately became part of the heated debate over Japan’s economic practices and designs.
For a while, there were rumors that early copies of the book had been recalled by its publisher, Knopf, to tone down some of the more inflammatory passages. (Although some changes were made, they were minimal.) But even without such rumors, Rising Sun would have generated heat. An extremist take on Japan, Crichton’s book has drawn some extreme responses. ”Its undoubtedly commercial potential is based solely on its lead-footed manipulation of the currently hot Japan card,” wrote Michael M. Thomas in The New York Observer. The New York Times Book Review not only put Rising Sun on its cover, it also published rare (for the Times) dueling views of the book, one aggressively pro, the other virulently anti (”the latest, and least subtle, of a great tide of recent books demonizing the Japanese”).
So what is Crichton’s message? He takes his cue from the phrase ”business is war,” which he claims is a Japanese motto that encourages practices we consider underhanded. To this end, he recounts almost every well-known Japanese trade horror story in recent memory. He worries that the Japanese have hired the cream of American research talent. And he laments the many obvious American failings-the state of our schools, our problems with drugs and crime, and so forth.
All of this is fine, so far as it goes. But Crichton goes so much further. The plot twists in Rising Sun are meant to imply something darker about the Japanese. A university professor trying to help solve the case — the murder itself revolves around some nasty Japanese corporate machinations — finds his laboratory mysteriously closed. The one senator who stands up to the Japanese is framed for the murder. A detective on the case discovers that unnamed forces have been spreading the rumor that he is a child abuser. These unnamed forces, of course, are clearly the Japanese, although Crichton never says so straightforwardly. In effect, he wants us to believe that the Japanese have already taken over this country, though he stops short of making that ugly claim in so many words.
Crichton’s polemic has unquestionably generated a great deal of anger, but is this kind of bile-producing screed really what America needs right now as it tries to come to grips with the Japanese? Crichton may think so, but it’s just as likely that years from now, Rising Sun will be seen as an example of the hysteria that swept over America in the early 1990s. C-