If I say, “This book, the chapters of which are separated by descriptions of painter’s pigments, alternates between the point of view of the main character, Yuki—who grew up with Japanese parents in New York, made friends with a future model in high school and went on herself to become an artist and move to Berlin—and her estranged son, Jay, an art dealer struggling with the new challenge of fatherhood who’s at risk of passing out whenever people ask him about his ethnicity and he’s not accompanied by his hairless, elderly, sweater-wearing cat, Celeste,” you’ll probably have already formed an impression of Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan that’s largely inaccurate. Although it still sounds pretty great, right? And it is.
Yes, Harmless Like You carries on story lines across continents and between major cities, it spans a period of more than forty years and haunts known locales significant to art and culture, but it’s not like that. It’s not a knowing love letter to anything, it’s not precious, it’s funny at times but not largely a LOLing matter. It’s a relatively quiet book about characters who find the more traditional life paths set out for them to be both too much and not enough.
Yuki isn’t a budding, hungry artist who moves to New York City to find herself. She’s already been living there throughout most of her childhood and adolescence. By her own reckoning, she’s “enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.” She’s friendless until meeting Odile, the green-eyed delinquent daughter of a romance novelist. Yuki is meant to return with her parents to Japan, but she wants to stay in the city that feels somewhat familiar, if not exactly a home. To carry this off, she convinces her parents to let her move in with Odile and her mother.
Family drama ensues, harmful but never explosive as it might be in a more predictable story. Through Yuki’s eyes, the reader catches glimpses of both “authentic” Japanese culture and the New York art scene, but these elements escape Yuki’s full grasp, just as comprehensible cultural experiences escape many Americans, first and second generation or otherwise.
She tries to be an artist, tries to please her parents, and regardless of what she imagines at any given time, success and failure on both counts are difficult to add up.
Decades after Yuki’s decision to stay in New York and her initial artistic forays, her son Jay, the product of her previous marriage, flies to Berlin after the death of his father to tie up some legal matters with the mother who left home while he was an infant. This is where the book begins, telling both characters’ stories in a series of flashbacks before focusing back on the meeting of mother and son in the present.
Jay is an odd little cupcake of a character who has all the cards stacked against him in terms of typical likability. He’s cheated on his wife, he experiences not just lapses in fatherly emotion but at least one impulse to leave his baby with a stranger, his thoughts are often unkind and his behavior sometimes strange. He feeds Celeste—the emotional support pet who saves him from fainting spells, in case you forgot—random sausage dropped by crows on the balcony of his Berlin hotel. Balcony sausage. To me, this is a good, if inconsequential, example of Jay’s weird spontaneous self. (Though I suppose it could be that German sausages and German crows, being German, are always very clean, and that only I find this weird.)
In any case, Jay’s flaws make him entertaining and give him a rough solidity that’s integral to the tone and substance of the novel. The title of the book comes from a remark an older love interest of Yuki’s makes to her about civilians being killed in Vietnam. “Harmless little girls like you” is how he describes them, and she later uses the phrase “harmless like you” for the title of an art exhibit. But Yuki, of course, is no more harmless than anyone else. To say she’s either harmless or a monster is to deny her humanity.
On the one hand, Harmless Like You is about hurt being passed from parent to child, how previous hurt creates new wounds. On the other, what interests me the most in the book is not that Buchanan writes about less likable, wounded characters successfully, but that she humanizes them through the very traits that would often be considered unlikable.
Yuki and Jay don’t start out as hard characters who are shown, surprisingly, to possess the kind of tender, parental core to which it’s expected we can all relate. Instead, they seem fuller and more realized because they have the capacity for selfish, impulsive behavior.
Neither Yuki nor Jay are entirely unlikable but, maybe more importantly, neither are they to be pitied. Every ounce of their fictional beings seems built to resist pity, and this informs the complex, unconventional and freeing nature of their first meeting as adults. They don’t have “redeeming” qualities, but simply qualities that sit side by side with others. While Yuki may seem “harmless” to begin with, the unfolding narrative doesn’t reveal a transformation. Instead, it reveals the error in having thought her harmless, and therefore helpless, in the first place.