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A Well-Drawn Tale
By Margaret Black

The Fourth Treasure
By Todd Shimoda,
Illustrations by L.J.C. Shimoda Nan A.
Talese/Doubleday, 352 pages, $24.95

Todd Shimoda’s second novel, The Fourth Treasure, offers an assortment of riches unusual in any writing these days, especially fiction. Not only are the complicated, intertwined stories intriguing, and the artistic and philosophical meditations interesting, but the book itself is part of the total aesthetic, with its elegant design, stunning illustrations and fascinating marginalia. In this aspect, The Fourth Treasure embodies that part of the novel focused on shodō, the art of Japanese calligraphy, where what is written and how it is written ideally manifests the deepest nature of the creator, and where the artful message is indistinguishable from the artful medium.

The primary story takes place in present-day California, where Tina Suzuki has just entered a graduate program in neuroscience at Berkeley. She wants to study the mechanics of consciousness, in part to find out who she is. Hanako, her Japanese mother, now seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, has worked all of Tina’s life as a waitress. Tina knows that her mother came to the United States as an adult, but she knows nothing else about her family, including who her father is. She’s pretty indifferent to her ethnic background, although a crash course is occurring all around her courtesy of her insufferable boyfriend, Robert Smith—known to Tina and everyone else as Robert-san (Mr. Robert in Japanese). He’s intent on making himself expert in everything authentically Japanese—the language, the tea ceremony, aikidō, kendō sword fighting, taiko drumming—you get the point.

Robert’s calligraphy teacher, or sensei, suffers a stroke, and although the old man survives, he cannot speak. He does, however, begin drawing obsessively, using a calligraphy brush in the same manner he would to make kanji, the Japanese characters. But the sensei’s drawings do not cohere as language, nor do they replicate anything in nature. Robert asks Tina to help assess what chances the old man has of recovering and what the meaning might be of the drawings. Tina brings them to her mother, thinking that she may be able to interpret them. At the same time, Tina raises the sensei’s case with her two feuding professors, who instantly see possibilities for professional advancement in studying him. Meanwhile, the sensei’s best student finds among the sensei’s private effects an ancient inkstone—the fourth treasure of shodō after the calligraphy brush, the ink, and the paper—which he quickly determines to be the famous missing Daizen Inkstone.

Intertwined, therefore, with Tina’s story (and the emergence, thank heaven, of another love interest), are the stories of Hanako and the sensei, the academic jockeying of the neuroscience professors, and, reaching back into 17th-century Kyoto, the troubled history of the Daizen Inkstone itself. Enriched by engaging meditations on art and the nature of human consciousness, all the dramas unfold in convincing and mutually informing ways.

Some of the characters, alas, are not very three-dimensional. And in one embarrassingly awful scene, a Japanese private investigator—a fascinating person otherwise—is threatened by a real estate tycoon and his thugs. Throughout, the author maintains a zenlike detachment that keeps the temperature cool even in scenes that cry out for passion. But by the book’s conclusion, this—well, one can’t help saying it—Japanese restraint permits an intensely felt and truly moving resolution.

Exquisite kanji and notes regarding shodō and neuroscience appear in the novel’s generous margins. The kanji are described and analyzed in ways that not only are objectively interesting, but also contribute to understanding the characters and the story. The neuroscience notes, in turn, define concepts the reader may not know, and spell out even more clearly than the text the neural computer theory of consciousness held by one professor and the language-based theory held by the other. Boldly integrated into the text itself are drawings that the sensei produces after his stroke, each accompanied by a short poem that expresses Hanako’s emotions as she studies them. Estimates of their aesthetic value will probably vary among readers, but the drawings do convey the necessary sense of freedom and raw emotional power. Even the cover contributes: It depicts the squared-off paper used for writing manuscripts in kanji, with calligraphic pen strokes inside certain squares, and the author’s name in a red signature seal such as would appear on a fine example of calligraphy.

Readers who were annoyed rather than intrigued by the author’s myriad “bytes” of information and graphics in his first novel, 365 Views of Mt. Fuji: Algorithms of the Floating World, will be relieved at the traditional format of The Fourth Treasure. Those altogether new to Shimoda may find the marginalia distracting. If they do, they can ignore the commentary and still read the novel with perfect understanding. But for greatest pleasure, The Fourth Treasure is a total package, best enjoyed in its entirety.

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