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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Method Actors

Carl Shuker

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To purchase The Method Actors

Title: The Method Actors
Author: Carl Shuker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 492 pages
Availability: The Method Actors - US
The Method Actors - UK
The Method Actors - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : constantly intriguing, but dangles too many very loose threads

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/7/2005 Neil Gordon

  From the Reviews:
  • "Shuker's actors may not have completely mastered the Method: for much of the novel, they make you think but not feel. Despite its fascinations, this ambitious, often brilliant novel told me too much about itself and too little about the reality we all struggle to understand." - Neil Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Method Actors is a long novel -- nearly five-hundred pages --, a fact that's noteworthy because it doesn't seem to go anywhere, or at least not very far. Shuker's presentation -- not strictly chronological -- reinforces the notion, so one imagines it's on purpose, but it doesn't feel entirely right.
       The central event in the novel is the disappearance of Michael Edwards, which leads to his sister Meredith coming to look for him, and the counterpoint of looking for him (in the present) and uncovering the past (including what Michael was doing up to that point, and what might have led to or caused his disappearance) doesn't fully drive the novel, which bogs down instead in lengthy incidental episodes, side-stories that often are all atmosphere and don't move anything much forward.
       The Method Actors is a novel of twenty-somethings in Japan, foreigners (gaijin) in a very foreign land. In generally painstaking detail Shuker describes the foreigners' lives in Tokyo, from those who come over to teach English in the JET programme to the sons and daughters of privilege -- Michael and Meredith, whose father is a New Zealand judge with a penthouse suite in the Shinjuku Prince they can use and Simon, whose entrepreneur-father charges him with dining at the finest restaurants a couple of times a week to look for cooking staff he can poach for his restaurants. Chapters focus on different characters (some of them narrating their own stories, others not), making for perhaps close to a dozen closely observed foreigner-in-Japan accounts in all.
       The scenes are well-related and detail-focussed, variations on a theme of often damaged people not yet sure of what they want to do with their lives trying to make their way in unreal Tokyo. Shuker could have built his whole novel around that (and at times it seems like he wants to), but he also has much grander ambitions. Specifically, there's Michael. Though a poor student it turns out he is very gifted and has, for years, been obsessed with history, writing a seminal paper on the Nanking Massacre that was published when he was still just in his teens. (In one of the few unrealistic touches Shuker has the paper reprinted in The New Republic, covering pages "20-57", but it's a magazine that rarely tops fifty pages total in length, and wouldn't print a piece of such length.)
       Michael's thesis is a fascinating one, and his ideas on history something that one wishes Shuker had focussed on more intently. As is, there are only tantalizing digressions or hints ( a summary of his publishing-history, for example), Shuker on the whole preferring to focus on far less interesting day-to-day lives of his many characters to make his point. History continues to play a role -- specifically, then, early Western contacts with Japan -- but this far more compelling part of the narrative is decidedly the second tier.
       Michael's massacre-thesis also ties in with the book's other major preoccupation: mushrooms, specifically those with mind-altering effects. This part of the story brings in Yasu, the one prominent Japanese character, a disgraced mycologist whose promising career was ruined by a foreigner and who now grows mushrooms at home. Again Shuker wallows in detail (making for a mycologist's dream: rarely has fungus-growing been more lovingly and meticulously been described), and again he tells the story in a roundabout way, with the reasons for Yasu's disgrace, for example, only being revealed very late on.
       The details are often impressive: Shuker sets neat scenes, and accurately portrays so many different aspects of the Japan-experience, but often they seem to little end. The many characters that populate the book are also distracting: it's unclear whose fate the reader should focus on. (The presentation not being entirely in chronological order also doesn't help .....) Michael, though he figures in quite a few of the scenes from the past, remains a shadowy presence -- and his prodigy-status also isn't entirely convincing (though the idea of a history-prodigy is intriguing).
       Packed with ideas, and attempting to connect history, hallucination, contemporary alienation, and much more, The Method Actors is enormously ambitious, but also unsatisfying. Shuker convinces in his details, especially of twentysomething foreigners in Tokyo, but also regarding his mushroom and historical forays, but the larger picture remains blurred.
       Early on Michael is quoted:

     "We were method actors," he says. "To know you gotta feel. To feel you gotta do. What if you could wake up imaginations, Cathy ? That's what I ask myself, every -morning-I-wake-up."
       But it doesn't come across as entirely convincing, not enough of Michael revealed to explain what he's after.
       A very odd book, with a good deal of promise and many let-downs.

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The Method Actors: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand author Carl R. Shuker was born in 1974.

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