“Oh, The Places You Can(’t) Touch”: I Read the Same Book Before, During, and After the Pandemic

I wrote the first draft of this essay about a year ago when the weird tranquility of the pandemic was still lingering. I left it unfinished and came back to it in September 2023. In the old draft I had opened the essay with an audio compilation called “Missing Sounds of New York” that the New York Public Library released in May 2020 in the middle of Covid. Meant to be “An Auditory Love Letter” to the New Yorkers confined in their homes, the album gathered the ambient sounds that were so very New York—the rush hour, murmurs of the audience waiting for an underground performance, noisy neighbors, and the noisier city park.

Who would have thought that the notorious New York rush hour would sound “romantic” and the “rowdy” city park “serene”? In the album, these unbeautiful sounds became beautiful reminders of the living, breathing New York. Not being able to stand the car noise outside now, this nostalgic tone feels almost alien.

Physical isolation can warp the senses in weird ways. Likewise, their sudden release. Trapped behind a computer screen, the unbearable screeching of subway tracks sounded romantic, taking the body back to that once-detested platform. Even smearing the grease on a platform column would feel cinematic. The New York conjured up in the murmurs of dining people and the shutting of cab doors was intimate and close to the body, as if touching the flesh of the city. For a while, after the quarantine lifted, my body rejoiced. The air felt ever so fragrant, a hug squeezed the heart. Now after a year, that physical elation is gone. I don’t hear the city’s pulses anymore, just another irritating scream of a car.

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita

I read Karen Tei Yamashita’s first novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest four times, twice before and twice after the pandemic. Centered around an imaginary plastic plain called the Matacão in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, the novel merges the sumptuous aesthetics of the telenovela and cheeky humor to talk about issues including Japanese immigration to Brazil, environmental devastation, and daunting global capitalism. It is not a frilly story but the narrator’s tone is very plastic—bouncy, lighthearted—, because that’s what the narrator is: a plastic ball.  

Imagine the bird’s vivid red, but made with rusty water
(image source: PickPik)

A story spanning transpacific immigration to global environmental deterioration, told by a bizarre plastic ball spinning around the head of a Japanese immigrant— it is utterly whimsical yet profound in its worldly concerns. That was my impression from the pre-pandemic reads. I still found the novel funny in my first post-pandemic read. But I also found myself obsessing over some obscure details I had missed. How the rain “drops spatter against the smooth surface” of the Matacão which becomes a “tropical skating rink.” How the deep Amazon rain forest/junkyard harbored weird species like butterflies whose “exquisite reddish coloring was actually due to a steady diet of hydrated ferric oxide, or rusty water” from the abandoned Fords. These half-fantastical places felt as palpable as the four walls of my room like the New York conjured up in those murmurs of sounds. The smallest suggestion of color or texture would trigger my starved senses and make them run wild.

My fourth read was two days ago. I noticed all the excited fluorescent underlines from the previous read and felt embarrassed. Through the Arc was still one of the most unapologetically sensuous and sprightly novels I’d ever read. This time, however, there was a pensive undertone. Less than a year ago, you felt like your body was reborn. The novel’s vivaciousness called out my sensory muscles which have gotten lazy in the past year but complained more of overload. For the first time, this whimsical book felt sober. My senses could transport me anywhere, but only in the right conditions.

Physical isolation can warp the senses in weird ways. Likewise, their sudden release. Through the Arc‘s over-the-top, sensuous thrill is a somber reminder.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

Now, I’ve made it sound like elaborate play with the sensory is Yamashita’s forte (I think it is), but it is rarely mentioned. Yamashita is mainly known for her keen historical and racial consciousness, and has expanded the horizon of cultural conversation in the US from the domestic to the “hemispheric and transnational.” I Hotel, one of Yamashita’s most frequently mentioned novels and a finalist in the 2010 National Book Award, is an experimental epic of the Asian American community in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s. Another work thought of as Yamashita’s signature is Sansei and Sensibility, a quirky spin on Jane Austen’s novels, dealing with the third-generation Japanese Americans, sanseis, and the earlier generations who shaped their lives. Yamashita’s timely winning of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Foundation has solidified her fame as a towering Asian American writer.

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita

So solid is this label that there seems to be no space to talk about her interests that extend beyond the Asian American experience, such as how she ships the readers to unknown places through ingenious sensory manipulations. In the 2021 Award statement, Through the Arc is simply Yamashita’s “first novel” as if trying not to linger on it too long. This is odd for a “Lifetime Achievement Award” that recognizes the author’s oeuvre. On this curious blank, Josh Cook at Lit Hub said: “It is difficult to say exactly what makes a Yamashita book a Yamashita book.” Cook says this is why Yamashita’s work “doesn’t quite cohere, at least not in the way contemporary publicity would prefer” such as in “Asian American literature.” An alternative, coherent thread, though, is barely discussed. Even Cook leaves Through the Arc out from his curation of Yamashita’s diverse work.

Through the Arc has indeed been “transnational,” for it has transported me to a landscape on the other side of the globe. “Transnational,” however, does not say how the novel brought me there. And how was what made each of my four reads a distinctive experience.

Through the Arc does not give a crisp, photographic view of the plastic plain or any other places in the novel. Instead, there are a variety of textures, constant movements, and an array of colors with names that would only appear in a professional paint set. They act like small dots in a Seurat painting, gradually coming together to create a semblance of a three-dimensional space.

The conceived places are malleable because the dots can rearrange. They can align at one moment and clash at the next. This makes Brazil in Through the Arc feel more like an accidental, dream-like place than a country in South America. Next time, the place might look different. Or, it might not be there at all.

Being buoyant and volatile, plastic seems the perfect medium to create such a flexible place. Plastic is both metaphoric and literal in Through the Arc. It is metaphoric because it mirrors the fluid state of numerous dots. It is literal because the novel’s kaleidoscopic world is conceived of plastic—car doors, tiger lilies, human skin, and even food. While the plastic’s malleability is “miraculous” in itself, the sensuous perfection of the places that the plastic conjures up is more so. These artificial places burst with life, livelier and more “organic” than their natural counterparts.

The “juicy,” “dewy,” and “glow[ing]” plastic world recreates “the very perfection of nature.” It activates and captivates the sight, smell, taste, and touch of those who are inside but also those outside. By never letting the senses disengage, the plastic world transports and absorbs one into its realm. When inside, the time seems to stop, and the less-invigorating world outside disappears—just like there was only New York, distilled to its “perfection,” in that auditory allurement.

But Yamashita does not stop at the romantic, polyurethane microcosm. She explodes it, again metaphorically and literally, by erecting and destroying the “paradise of plastic delights.” This “paradise,” called Chicolándia, is borne out of the similarly pulsing affection of a saintly young man called Chico Paco for his once-invalid friend Gilberto, whom he heals with a barefoot pilgrimage. The rambunctious Gilberto reminds us of what it was like to be released from lockdown. With newly freed limbs, he runs and roams around, touching and breathing in everything. Gilberto can’t control his own, fresh impulses. And Chicolándia has a bottomless reserve of “delights” to answer to his desire:

Elephants, lions, kangaroos, zebras, anteaters, camels, sloths, buffaloes, panda bears, vultures, penguins, and crocodiles—to mention only a few in an enormous variety of thudding, crawling, creeping, hanging, and flying fauna—would soon create a bizarre ecology as they tramped through a projected maze of magnificent scenes: Babylonian towers on a desert oasis, the Taj Mahal, the docks of Amsterdam, Times Square in New York City, the Miami International Airport, the French Riviera, the Las Vegas strip, Patagonia, the California gold rush, Egyptian and Peruvian pyramids, Indonesian temples, medieval castles, the Titanic, ancient Rome, mythical Greece, and the moon.

Chicolándia gathers every possible surface and movement imaginable, inviting one to voluntarily imprison oneself. Next to a luscious desert oasis is Patagonia with glacial shine. The worn surface of Egyptian pyramid abuts Times Square with swirling LEDs.

“Future Forest” by the artist Thomas Dambo, made of plastic waste in Mexico City, Mexico. Imagine an eye-popping universe such as this, with very real-looking and feeling toucans, palm trees, and pyramids. (video source: Thomas Dambo YouTube channel)

Following Gilberto running mad “like a child,” I thought of how my body tingled when released from the worldwide house arrest as if stretching out of a long sleep. I was willing to take in anything, to be taken anywhere a touch would lead me. Yamashita published Through the Arc in 1990, nearly 30 years before the sensory incarceration and its release. It is surprising enough to see her prescience of the unprecedented repression of the senses and their dizzying rebound. It is almost eerie that the author saw even beyond.

Yamashita exposes, unperturbed, what comes after when the insulated sensuous world extinguishes. How the senses can be disoriented, how quickly their bounciness withers when the universe pops. Soon after the explosive carnival in Chicolándia, Yamashita infects the entire world with a weird, plastic-consuming bacteria. Chicolándia, along with everything—human skin, faux plants, buildings— is “horribly disfigured,” sobering people out of the dreamland.

The ”delights” decompose, so does the “paradise.” (image source: photo by Lutz Thuns on Flickr)

The paradise dismantles and people are back again in the dull world. Some can’t take it and decide to disappear with the sensuous haven. Some try to adjust to the less-vivacious world, struggling to attune their bodies to its mundanity. At this point, having a plastic ball for a narrator, which disintegrates with the rest of the world, turns out to be not just a humorous literary touch. By having the ball begin the story in the aftermath of the plastic boom and debacle, Yamashita observes the progression of the sensory bubble, backward. Throughout the novel, she stands in the prosaic world, places an otherworldly condition over it, and then removes that condition to reveal its potency and the senses’ susceptibility to it. I myself have proved Yamashita’s insights with my fluctuating reactions to the plastic world in each phase of the pandemic, to my self-consciousness and her brilliance.

When you’re physically isolated, your sense is a powerful and seductive transporter to alien places. When you’re released, the thrill would be gone quicker than you imagine. Yamashita knew this 30 years before the pandemic.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The ripples of the plastic carnival must have stayed with Yamashita. Her latest book, Sansei and Sensibility, picks up the sensory thread that ended Through the Arc. Sansei and Sensibility teases the dainty world of Jane Austen’s with the less-than-lofty vibrations in the lives of Japanese Americans. The novel is divided into Part Ⅰ “Sansei” and Part Ⅱ “Sensibility”, with the latter directly referencing Jane Austen’s work, as if to reflect the gulf of time and space between the two J.A. worlds. Yet, both Parts repeatedly traverse that gulf, overlapping the swing of muslin dress with “nylons, pointed heels, hair spray” beaming under rock music. This crossing may seem absurd, but not so much when read after the sensory transports in Through the Arc (there is a “coherent” theme in her work). Am I going overboard to find it telling that Sansei and Sensibility was published in 2021, at the height of the pandemic? Perhaps. But Sansei’s unmistakably sensuous atmosphere and attraction to places that are totally alien to each other does signal that Yamashita is continuing her sensory exploration started in Through the Arc. And in Sansei, this exploration evolves, delving into a less-probed realm—the grotesque, viscous, and foul.

If vibrating and lively sensations could ship one to the plastic paradise, what about the gross and disgusting? Where do they lead to? “Bombay Gin” is one of several stories in Sansei that tackles this question squarely, and one that would leave loyal Janeite readers aghast.1

If vibrating and lively sensations could ship one to the plastic paradise, where do gross and disgusting lead to? This is the question in Sansei and Sensibility.

In this macabre story, the narrator is locked alone in the apartment/shrine of her dead nisei aunt for seven days. She touches her aunt’s every trinket, applies every skincare item, and tries every old foodstuff, to finally emerge with an aged (I mean, aged) Bombay Gin that she makes with presumably expired ingredients. The setting could make a thriller or even horror, with a tiny, enclosed space where the traces of the deceased are intact. A typical horror victim is hyper-conscious (often to madness) of the physical traits of the place that one is trapped in (that bathroom in Saw). So is the narrator of “Bombay Gin” for a while as she scans the apartment. She notices how cramped the kitchen is. She frantically calls a locksmith to no avail. However, as she starts fingering and smelling the objects in the apartment—an old soy sauce, Styrofoam-packed natto, and the dresser items— the four walls of the apartment gradually blur until they disappear from her perception:

I applied all of my aunt’s expensive Shiseido makeup, slathered on the age-inhibitor lotions, spritzed and dabbed myself with a dozen French perfumes, and just like the fridge jars, opened and smelled everything, thinking, A person could be embalmed in this stuff. I gripped the sink, dizzy with sudden nausea, my head in a pungent cloud of her particular smell.

Soy sauce, natto, perfume—every single thing that can go rotten and stinky is consumed and breathed in. (image source: PxHere)

As the vestiges of the dead “embalm” the narrator, numbing her olfactory sense, the tangible corners of the apartment disintegrate into “a pungent cloud.” As the decaying flesh of the Matacão plastic undoes the walled paradise, the numbing odor paralyzes the narrator from registering the physical structure of the apartment. Instead, she starts perceiving a kind of force lying in the apartment. The mixed smell of food and cosmetics arouses a sense of being (too) close to someone—her dead aunt and other nisei and issei relatives— whose bodily traces and memories used to lie unstirred in the apartment. The narrator stirs those dormant traces and the “dizzying” “pungency” of the process pushes her to notice them.

The grotesque unravels the sense of present time and place. It transports you to a place in the past, where lingers the smell of those who were once there.

In Through the Arc, the grotesque unravels place and disenchants sensory delights. The grotesque still unravels place in Sansei. But it encourages, rather than discourages, one to feel beyond one’s present time and physical surroundings. The grotesque becomes a portal for connection with those who were once here. At the end of “Bombay Gin”, the narrator finally gets in touch with a locksmith. She leaves the apartment with a stomach full of old miso and a (un)freshly crafted Bombay Gin, breathing in the “pungent” memories.

Like many great writers, Yamashita knows how potent the sensory is in shaping a sense of place. And she maneuvers it brilliantly in both her first and latest novels. Yamashita also knows how potent the condition of place is in warping the sensory. And this level of perceptiveness seems rare even among great writers.

The pandemic added an illusory, savory flavor to my reading. I devoured the descriptions of faraway places or delicate objects and felt satiated. When I revisited those books in 2023, five out of seven had lost their sumptuousness. Or to be more precise, my craving was gone with the pandemic. One of the two books that still triggered my body was Through the Arc. And Through the Arc was the only book that called out its amnesia. You may have forgotten, but I remember— the plastic ball would say.

  1. Yamashita is kind enough to guide, “Note to Janeite readers in search of Jane Austen: kindly skip to part Ⅱ.” But even in part Ⅱ, the readers should prepare themselves for a like of this:

    Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009) by Ben H. Winters (with Jane Austen attributed) (image source: Wikimedia Commons) ↩︎

Work Cited

Cook, Josh. “Why Everyone Should Read the Great Karen Tei Yamashita.” Lit Hub, 17 Sep 2021. https://lithub.com/why-everyone-should-read-the-great-karen-tei-yamashita/.

Dambo, Thomas. “THE FUTURE FOREST – 3 Tons of plastic waste turned into a colorful forest.” Thomas Dambo YouTube Channel, 24 May 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTC8ie_HB5c.

“Telenovela.” Wikipedia, 23 Jun 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telenovela.

Missing Sounds of New York. The New York Public Library, 2020.

“Japanese immigration in Brazil.” Wikipedia, 23 Jun 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_immigration_in_Brazil#:~:text=Japanese%20immigration%20in%20Brazil%20officially,to%20Japanese%20and%20their%20descendants.

“National Book Foundation to Present Lifetime Achievement Award to Karen Tei Yamashita.” National Book Foundation, 24 Jun 2023. https://www.nationalbook.org/national-book-foundation-to-present-lifetime-achievement-award-to-karen-tei-yamashita/.

Saw. Directed by James Wan, Lions Gate Films, 2004.

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Sansei and Sensibility. Coffee House Press, 2020.
— . Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. Coffee House Press, 1990.

Cover images credit: (back, front) photo by arbyreed on Flickr, photo by Alec Favale on Unsplash


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