Who hasn’t wondered about another: is that one straight or gay? Bi? Trans? Male or female? I’d guess most have, at some point. Some are more certain about the world, with no need or occasion to question. Some are even certain about themselves. But others are less so.
In Criminals, a 93,000-word novel set in big, beautifully unstoppable Tokyo, American Conner is gay, twenty-four and hung up on a bar-owning ex-boyfriend, Arata, who dumped him. But lately Conner has been sleeping with a woman—a first—and he likes it, making him wonder about his identity. Wanting to fix a desperate mess he’s created, Conner successfully smuggles hash into Tokyo for Arata, only to wake after a night with the new girlfriend, Katie, to find her and the hash both gone. Conner goes on the hunt for Katie. Instead he meets Marika, a Japanese woman on the lam. Marika, too, is author to a mess—she married a man she didn’t love—but her fix is tricky in a different way, since her husband doesn’t want to let her go. As Conner tracks Katie across the world of foreign travelers and fortune-seekers and Japanese of the same bent, Marika jumps between houses and jobs evading the loving husband sniffing out her trail. When Marika and Conner are lured into a shady scheme, police, mobsters and another shadowy presence close in. Conner and Marika become reluctant allies and find that redemption can come from the most unlikely of places.
I lived in Japan for four years, becoming a professional Japanese and (formerly) Chinese translator. Although I have written non-fiction about translating Japanese into English and about the bilingual brain, I have never written memoir or fiction set in Japan or even journaled about my life as a foreigner in Japan and Taiwan. This book is the exception. Begun as a lark, it became my way of emotionally journeying through the world I encountered while tramping through the internal territory I explored in my early adulthood. It’s funny how real a story can feel to you, even knowing that none of it actually happened.
Despite the more fantastic elements of Criminals—the near-thriller plot—I think the story does recount a certain experience of Tokyo, a city in which there is always something happening, calling to Japanese and foreigners alike. I went through title after title for it, most using the word “Tokyo,” since the city is crucial to the book. During a recent stint at the Department of Justice working in criminal enforcement (much, much less exciting than it sounds), I tumbled to the fact that nearly everyone in the book is a criminal. They were criminals, and this was their book. Once I had that title—Criminals—I couldn’t shake it. And perhaps that’s where the book had always been heading, unbeknownst to me, because when something as basic as your sexual nature has been criminalized, you either have to accept yourself as an outlaw or accept that all laws can be questioned.