One of the many pleasures of Nina Revoyr’s quietly powerful new novel, The Age of Dreaming, is the portrayal of its central character, an aging Japanese silent-film star named Jun Nakayama. The novel is set in 1964, and Jun is living in a small apartment in West Hollywood, forgotten and ignored, a dignified and elderly man whose neighbors have no idea he was once a major Hollywood star with an understated acting style that would later influence the likes of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. It’s been more than 40 years since Jun made his last picture in 1922, and the question that hangs over the novel is, Why did Jun give up such a successful career only to live out his life in obscurity?
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It’s a question that Revoyr takes 300 pages to answer, slowly and artfully leaking out bits of Jun’s remarkable past by moving back and forth in time. In the process, she turns The Age of Dreaming into a murder mystery, as she did her last novel, the critically acclaimed Southland, which focused on South-Central L.A. and the intersection of black and Japanese culture, depicting the particularly brutal murders of several young black men that occurred during the Watts riots.
In her new novel, Revoyr once again takes up the question of race, but this time the setting is Hollywood, where race has always been, to say the least, deeply problematic. It’s not just that minorities have historically been denied roles in Hollywood films, but that racial lines were intentionally blurred, with darker skins treated as racially interchangeable — or, as was more often the case, white skins simply darkened to the requisite hue to represent The Other, as if audiences were so stupidly uncaring and nonwhites so incapable of acting, who could be bothered with truthful representations?
In this context, Jun Nakayama stands out as an entirely original creation. He is unlike anyone we’ve met before in a Hollywood novel — a Japanese actor, immensely handsome and elegant, who at the height of his career managed to land romantic roles playing opposite some of the most desirable and beautiful actresses of the silent age. Forty years later, as he contemplates the past, we sense no bitterness in him, no longing for his lost fame, but instead calm, steady acceptance of his diminished life. He narrates his own story in a quietly authoritative voice, which from the first sentence draws us in:
When I heard about the opening of the Silent Movie Theater, I should have known that someone would look for me — but the young man’s phone call yesterday morning was still a surprise. He found me the easy way — by calling the operator — and the fact that my number is listed, under my own real name, is some measure of how rarely I’ve received such calls in the course of the last forty years.
The young man on the other end of the phone is Nick Bellinger, a journalist and a great fan of Jun Nakayama’s early films, especially the classic Sleight of Hand. Bellinger not only wants to interview Jun, but, as he will later reveal, he’s written a script for a film he wants him to star in. Tentatively, with great reserve and caution, Jun begins to imagine making another film, this time with a speaking role. What concerns him, however, is the possibility that if he does so, his long-buried past, involving a murder and an ensuing scandal, might come to light, something he wishes to avoid.
The Age of Dreaming plays with a number of disparate themes: fame and hope, how the early, glittering success of the sort Hollywood specializes in can end in sudden failed promise, how easily ordinary citizens become party to racism, and how wistfully sad it is to make the wrong choices when it comes to love. Above all, Revoyr evokes the beauty of silent movies. “Silent films were more than just a prelude to talkies … the best were works of subtlety and beauty … there was a purity to silent films that can never be recaptured in this clamorous age of sound effects and talking … we understood that moving images are the catalysts of dreams — more eloquent when undisturbed by voices.” In a cacophonous age of violent action films, such dreams have turned to nightmares.
Revoyr, who is Japanese and Polish-American by birth, and who grew up in Japan, Wisconsin and L.A., writes convincingly not only about the history of this city but also about the changing social and racial tides in California in the early ’20s, when a growing fear of the “Yellow Peril” led to harassment of Japanese actors. During this time, even white actors were held to greater scrutiny by the self-proclaimed moral forces who, worried about film’s effect on the great unwashed public, eventually began to dictate the content of films via the Hays Code.
While reading Revoyr’s book, I couldn’t help thinking of Jerry Stahl’s brilliant novel I, Fatty, about Fatty Arbuckle’s fall from grace, which occurred around the same time that the fictional Jun Nakayama’s career ended. Both novels are American tragedies, Stahl’s much the funnier, Revoyr’s the more quietly moving. A blurb by Stahl on the cover of Revoyr’s book calls it “a masterpiece” with “Nabokov-worthy sentences.” Like so many blurbs, this one feels somewhat excessive, but that doesn’t diminish Revoyr’s real achievement with this book, the end of which becomes particularly poignant when a secret not even Jun could have imagined comes to light, and the novel settles to a close as deftly and beautifully as a crane landing on quiet water.
THE AGE OF DREAMING | By NINA REVOYR | Akashic Books | 327 pages | $16 softcover
Nina Revoyr will read from The Age of Dreaming at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Thurs., April 3, at 7:30 p.m.; at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica on Wed., April 9, at 7 p.m. (with Jerry Stahl), and at Eso Won Books in L.A. on Mon., April 14, at 7 p.m. (with Chris Abani).
Judith Freeman’s most recent book is The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved.