I am named in a terrible book

I let an author stay in my house and he published ridiculous things about me

Topics: Since You Asked, Writers and Writing, Family, Pale Fire,

I am named in a terrible book (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

Several years ago, my cousin and his wife asked if I would put up one of their friends, a university professor, and his wife during their stay in Tokyo where I live. My apartment is very small and I was about to be visited by my ex and our daughter who were flying in from Italy. I nonetheless agreed as I figured friends of my cousins were friends of mine.  

Two months later, the day arrived when my guests finally flew in from Vancouver and Turin. During the following week, I was busy with my daughter and ex during the days but the professor and his wife would join us for dinner in the evening after seeing the sights.  I have put up many people over the years and I saw nothing different with this visit.

Fast-forward several years and a package arrives for me from the professor with a book inside. It turned out to be about his efforts to trace the route of his missionary grandfather in the early 19th century. Reading about this fellow’s grandfather wasn’t high on my list of things to do but I felt obliged to finish it so I could send off a quick thank you note. I picked it up and started reading. The first few chapters had him sitting in libraries in Australia trying to dig up tidbits about his family history. Not exactly a scintillating read but I was determined to plug away. It’s too bad I did — for me, for him and for my cousin and his wife.

It was only when I reached the chapter set in Japan that I realized I had been taken for a patsy. Not only did my name appear in CAPS on the first page of the chapter together with the names of my ex and daughter but we ended up remaining center stage in his story for the next 37 pages.

It was bad enough that his facts about Japan were mostly wrong but what got me particularly steamed was that he attributed most of these incorrect facts to me.  He also took it upon himself to speculate several times about whether my ex and I were about to get romantically involved again. What better than a bit of titillation to spice up an otherwise slow-moving and not overly interesting travelogue.

When I pointed out his many mistakes to him as well as the fact that he had violated my privacy and hadn’t even had the decency to ask my permission to use my name or check the facts with me, the professor because indignant. Several emails passed between us but he refused point-blank to remove our names from the book, which he termed “literary travel writing.” A Vancouver lawyer I subsequently contacted said there was nothing libelous about what he had written although he agreed that the professor was the ultimate sleazebag.



As I said, several years have passed but a bad taste still remains in my mouth. When I approached my cousin and his wife about the situation, instead of saying “oops” and offering to take care of the matter, they lashed out at me and accused me of carrying out a vendetta against their best friends. We haven’t spoken since. But I have heard through the grapevine they are still wondering why I haven’t gotten over “my grudge.”

Am I strange for not wanting to have anything to do with them?

Tokyo Jacked

Dear Tokyo Jacked,

No, you aren’t strange for wanting to have nothing to do with them. What this man did was very bad. He created a very bad book and made you read it.

This may be the worst book in the world. He actually wrote pages about sitting in Australian libraries trying to dig up tidbits about his grandfather, a missionary? Plus he got his facts wrong about Japan? This is hard to take.

Aesthetic badness has a destructive power all its own. It is ugliness compounded by greed, narcissism and blindness, and it forces itself on us in the guise of art, so that after we are into it far enough to be able to write a thank you note we are screwed. We’ve seen it and cannot un-see it. We have experienced a traumatic violation in an intimate sphere and may have trouble walking normally afterward. So I think you are wholly justified in denouncing this work as a hideous aesthetic calamity.

But many of our aesthetic judgments must remain private. As an antidote, I prescribe “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov. This fine tonic will remove the taste of aesthetic badness and also provide a little of the bracing, acerbic hilarity needed to fully recover.

Best wishes. You have been had, but there are solutions. They lie in the realm of art, not family relations.

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