When I was teenager, was handed James Clavell’s Shogun, a masterpiece of exciting historical fiction. Drawing inspiration from real historical figures and a real global-historical context, Shogun was vivid and dramatic, and intoxicating mix of cloak-and-dagger, Robinson Crusoe, and epic, sweeping narrative. It was a book that read like a movie.
I have re-read Shogun several times, and each time enjoyed it throughly. I am sorry to report that Clavell’s other ventures in writing are far less successful. Clavell actually wrote about half a dozen novels based on a similar formula to Shogun: a culture clash between East and West, set in East Asia, dramatic characters caught up in wheels-within-wheels intrigue and passion. Gai-Jin is the third in the “series” set in Yokohama in the early 1860s, when foreign governments where first trading with Japan after the expedition of Commodore Perry. I have previously read Tai-Pan, the second in the series; the books are all linked in many ways, though each can pretty much stand on its own.
Gai-Jin, like Tai-Pan focus more on European/English characters; and both badly fail to live up the awesomeness that is Shogun. What is used to great effect in Shogun comes off as kitschy or trite or cliche in his other books. The tricks seem predicable; the endless cunning and seeming depth of characters in Shogun are recycled, but clumsily. Not only did I not care about the plot in Gai-Jin (there was no sense of building towards a climax, no sense of larger purpose), but each character seemed essentially the same: calculating, but blinded by their rather shallowing passion.
I picture James Clavell, the toast of society after Shogun. Then, after a month or so, his editor calls him in and says “Wow, James, Shogun is amazing. When can we expect the next one? Oh, and by the way, can you write it with a screenplay in mind?” And to me, that’s the secret of Gai-Jin. It was meant to be turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s very much like a HBO series in book form (I’m specifically thinking of The Tudors here): the same dozen-or-so-characters swirl around in pomp and splendour and cunning and drama but really not all that much happens, despite many dramatic scenes. Really, the fact that the Clavell books are not HBO-ized I find seriously shocking.
Read Shogun. Do not bother with the rest.