Flight Paths of the Emperor marks my third consecutive book by a Salon des Refusés author. I was much impressed by the short story, “Five Paintings of the New Japan”, which was reprinted in the New Quarterly‘s contribution to the Salon, and when I found a copy of the first printing of this book two weeks ago I jumped on it. (The image on the cover of my edition is the same as the one shown, but the design and layout of the cover as a whole is quite different.)
It’s not difficult to explain what holds these stories together; they all seem to be about Canadians experiencing Japanese (or in one story, Chinese) culture, and butting heads with that culture, and with their own assumptions. Many of the characters and settings seem to carry over from one story to the next. That doesn’t sound very exciting, I know, but Heighton pulls it off almost flawlessly (the one yakuza story seems a little out of place). Obviously alienation is a major theme of this collection, as characters with loneliness and unfamiliar surroundings. Like language, the specifics of culture are generally thought of as arbitrary. Just as there is nothing particularly tree-like about the word “tree”, nothing that suggests a specific treeness as determined by nature, there is nothing particularly necessary or natural about one style of politess or one system of conducting business. Stories of alienation tend to emphasize this arbitrariness; we either wind up seeing through the assumptions we make about our own culture, or we experience the dislocation of trying to make sense of the assumptions made by another. Flight Paths of the Emperor left me with another idea altogether: the inevitability of culture. I was struck, not by some saccharine notion that we are all the same deep down, but rather that no matter how differently we approach the world or our lives, the reason we reach for solutions, the motivating factors in the emergence of culture, are fundamentally the same. Only the manifestations are arbitrary. This seems like an obvious thing to say, and of course it most likely is; what is non-obvious is thinking about it at all.
Flight Paths of the Emperor was my ninth selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next is Adult Entertainment, by John Metcalf.