Big in Japan

Though an attractive young man with a small but significant reputation as an upcoming artist, Amir feels inept at the cool New York parties. Surrounded by much more successful people his age, he finds himself intimidated and hates himself for it. There are so many guys his age in relationships. They remind him of him and Leila, with generally the same politics and food preferences. They, however, can afford nice restaurants. Some are even buying their first apartment.

Thankfully, Leila does respect his commitment to his art, his willingness to take temp jobs in his summers and days when he doesn’t have classes to support himself. But he can tell it bothers her. Recently, after leaving a dinner gathering at a gay couple’s amazing brownstone on the Upper West Side, she actually sighed, “Will we ever get to live like that?”

“George is a lawyer, and Michael’s a doctor, some kind of specialist, like for kidneys. I doubt it,” replied Amir, matter-of-fact. “Unless your graphic design company really blows up and you sell it to Jeff Bezos.”

“Well, your father is making good money now, selling paintings, right?” she asked hopefully, as they waited for their Uber.

“True, but it’s not like that’s such a sure thing. My parents have also buried themselves in a ton of debt, for him to get to this place. It was even worse back in Iran.” Though they’d changed the subject on the ride back to her place, he could feel some unsteady tension in the car. For the first time, he started to really worry about his future with her.

Of course, he had grandiose dreams of selling paintings for Gerhard-Richter-kind-of-money, but in his heart, he really doubted he’d amount to much. His close friend Victor, a young poet, best captured his aesthetic once after accompanying him to a group show featuring one of his pieces titled, “The Artist as Rice Cooker.” Next to a magnifying glass, Amir had positioned grains of rice with lines of the Qur’an written upon them: “[The angels of Allah] are nearer to him than his own jugular vein.” — Surah 50.

“It seems interesting, bro,” said his friend. “But I gotta be honest, I don’t get it…at all.”

“It’s a commentary on how we’re all so consumed with the quotidian bullshit in our lives,” said Amir, resenting that he had to explain it to his friend. “It’s saying just like the carbohydrates we want to eat that simply burn empty calories, we forget how we belong to an infinite plan.”

“Damn, that’s deep, and I’m impressed with how small you made the writing,” replied his friend. “You could fit the whole book of poetry I’m writing on one page with that script,” he added, now seeming a lot more interested in the work.

“Well, it’s not a good sign if you don’t get it at all. I shouldn’t have to explain it to you,” said Amir.

“Welcome to much of the masterful western poetry. You ever tried Wallace Stevens?” asked Victor.

“Did he sell books?” asked Amir, a little ashamed of his interest in profit, but seriously wondering if he did.

“Maybe like 600 copies,” replied Victor, “but he was a lawyer, an executive at an insurance company. Just get a day job like him, and you can keep making art like this.”

“But I think I want, even need, to be successful in making my art…on my own terms,” said Amir, now really starting to worry about the future.

“It’s just not you, vato,” replied Victor. “You’ll never be mainstream, even if you try. You’ll always be an independent Japanese movie.”

As if the universe had read Amir’s mind, a rather surprising opportunity to start making money from his art presented itself while he was reflecting on his friend’s assessment at the next party, a very upscale one. Alone with a glass of Diet Coke he’d just ordered from the bar while Leila went off to mingle, he started to lose himself in watching tropical fish swim in an aquarium.

“Hey, you’re Amir, right?” asked a skinny British guy with thick dark hair. “Leila told me you were here. I was actually looking for you.”

Amir looked at him, a little confused.

“We met at the Martens’ dinner party. I’m David Samuel. I work sometimes with your girlfriend, when my company, Scholastic, hires her company.”

“Oh yeah, sure, how’s it going? You were…um…looking for me?”

“I’ve seen some of your drawings and paintings, on Instagram. They’re great. Not only do you have inventive concepts, but you also seem to have legit skills as an illustrator.”

“Thanks…that’s from my mother…who forced me to take so many classes in drawing and realistic painting.” Amir instantly felt so validated, just that someone actually had seen and been into his work, especially at a party like this one. Such feedback alone would have been enough to get him mingling with Leila again, but it got even better.

“So I work in publishing. Children’s books. Believe it or not, people still spend money on books…for their young kids, at least. Anyway, I connect illustrators with writers…for picture books. I have a project that you might be great for, maybe to try you out for others. Would you be up for something like that?

“Umh, maybe,” offered Amir, suddenly rather nervous, both about not getting it, and about the job actually coming through.

“Well, it’s a great book, called Cody the Coder, about a kid computer wiz who changes the world by coding it.”

“That’s cool,” said Amir, nodding his head in instant approval. “Very postmodern…for kids.”

“Could I send the manuscript over to you and maybe see what sketches you might have for it?” asked David.

“Sure, yeah, I mean…let’s try it out,” said Amir, trying to seem nonchalant about the try-out. It was all happening so quickly. He gave David his contact info.

Though initially kind of excited, he quickly turned ambivalent in response to Leila’s enthusiasm on the ride home.

“That’s so awesome, you might actually make some money from your art… And so nice of David to give you a try,” she said. Amir suddenly hated the idea that he needed to make money from his art, as well as the thought that David was doing him some magnanimous favor.

“I’m not even sure I’ll do it,” said Amir.

“Are you crazy? We’re going to need money. It’s either do something like that or start painting more accessible works that sell…like your mother…or maybe try teaching?”

Part of Amir wanted to go back to his basement apartment alone, to make his own art and never see Leila again, while the other side of him tried his best to act like a grown-up, accept the inevitable by returning to Leila’s nicely decorated apartment. Though these days her place felt like a trap set to keep him in her all-too-bourgie life. As his therapist was helping him to understand these days, both for better and for worse, he finds himself torn between his father’s experimental intransigence and his mother’s more in-the-world practicality. Hating both, he wanted to disappear, to somehow paint himself over with black.

Back in his basement a few days later, finding himself blocked on yet another painting assignment for one of his classes, he opened yet another credit card bill he would struggle to pay. In a moment of true financial panic as well as intense self-judgment that he’d become a sell-out, he opened the email from David and decided to try a few sketches.

The story was simple enough: this kid Cody could alter reality with his computer skills. On a rainy day, with his friends depressed because they couldn’t play soccer outside, he makes them appear on the monitor, playing in the sunshine. There’s an accident on his street, and other cars are about to hit a girl on a bicycle, so he makes the traffic light turn red to save her.

A kind of recluse himself, Amir couldn’t help but want to identify with the hero. He personally longed for Leila’s computer skills. He, too, wanted to change reality, only for much darker purposes, sullying existing works of art and rewriting esteemed reviews of paintings by artists he considered at best cliché. Getting a kick out of his own cynicism, Amir started to sketch against the words on the opposite page. Working throughout the night, he was proud enough of what he’d come up with that he took pictures and sent them back to Jason before finally going to sleep at dawn.

Amir was in an art history class a few days later when he got the rejection:

“Hey, these are great. Seriously. Thanks for sending them. Unfortunately, we have a different vision for the artwork, so we’re going with another illustrator, but we’ll be reaching out again if other projects come our way that seem like a good fit for you!”

Who were those “we,” wondered Amir. Whenever he got rejected, it always seemed as if by a committee, when in reality, more often than not, it was a single person, like a fellow anonymous MFA student working as a screener, not wanting, or perhaps not authorized, to take responsibility for passing on his work.

He feels simultaneously outraged and relieved. A failure at mainstream success, he retroactively critiques his own motive for submitting the illustrations in the first place. Of course, Leila will not understand, will even blame him for not getting the gig. She’s coming over tonight to his basement apartment, and he plans to avoid the subject altogether.

Unfortunately, as they eat the kebob he cooked in the backyard on his landlady’s worn-down hibachi, she’s quick to bring it up. “So David wrote to me that he was sorry, but he couldn’t use your illustrations. Did he tell you what happened?”

“Yeah,” sighed Amir, finishing the last of his kebob and rice. “It’s just as well. I mean, I tried to draw to the story, but I guess, as he said, it wasn’t a good fit.”

“Well, can I see your pictures?”

“Sure,” said Amir, taking her plate and his to the sink, then bringing his sketchpad to her. She started to thumb through the images, juxtaposed with the text he had printed out.

“Amir, what the fuck!” she said, now halfway through.

“What?” he asked, trying to sound naïve, though he knew why she was upset. “Hey, do you want a tea? Let’s have some of my grandma Taj’s tea.”

“Not right now,” she replied, rather seriously. “First tell me why you drew this little kid, Cody, like this.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Like a strung-out cokehead!”

“I saw him as a little bit of a loner,” replied Amir, putting generous scoops of his late grandmother’s tea into the pot, “and kind of a disaffected artist, cynical about the world, so he wants to change it.”

“Yeah, okay, I can see the need to read him like that,” she replied. “But he’s a little kid for Christ’s sake! He’s not like you, staying up, chain-smoking cigarettes, and drinking pots of black coffee while making irreverent art!”

“Well, I’ve been at your place when you code, and you look pretty strung out after you’ve pulled all-nighters,” countered Amir. “I’ve had to make you eat dinner when you’re on some big project for a client, bringing plates of food to you at your desk like Amadeus’s wife when he’s composing.”

“But I’m a grown-up, you idiot. No publisher would ever want this for little kids. You made him look dangerously antisocial.”

“How?” he asked, now leaving the water to boil as he walked over to see what he’d drawn, under her critical gaze.

“There are dark circles under his red eyes that are open too wide — with veins popping out of his eyeballs! And his hair, it’s like he’s stuck a fork in an outlet! And what’s this?” she asked, flipping towards the back. “The scene where he codes the gloomy weather into sunshine?”

“Yeah, I thought I nailed it,” he said defensively. He meant it.

“That sunshine…it’s so freakishly bright, like a product of nuclear fission or something. It’s sarcastically bright,” she added. “You have to see that.”

“I do,” said Amir, “It’s making an important statement about all the false positivism in America, where so much is fucked up, but let’s, you know, just go to Disneyland.”

“How is that your business to interpret that for the writer…and the reader?” she countered. “Your job was to depict it in relation to the tone of the story.”

“Well, that’s how I registered the tone. Like your friend, Jason, said, I wasn’t the best fit for it. Win some, lose some.”

“Is this the COVER!!!” she screams, right after flipping to the first page before any text.

“Just an idea,” replied Amir, lighting a cigarette and getting up as he heard the water boiling.

“The way this kid, Cody, is hovering over all of that computer code as he stares at the viewer…he looks like a fucking terrorist.”

“Well, he kind of is when you think about it. I mean, he’s trying to recode the world. Isn’t that an act of artistic destruction?”

“Okay, great,” she says, incredibly mean. “An artistic terrorist, just like you. Have fun with him in your basement…with no money because you guys scared everyone away.”

“Not everyone rejects me,” argued Amir, “And one day, who knows, somebody might pay money for me to share my dark vision. Then we can buy a nice house in the suburbs of New Jersey, have a kid, and name him Cody.”

“Never,” says Leila, accepting the tea he offers with a dirty, yet at least a little bit playful, look.

“By the way,” replies Amir, “I have a new follower on Instagram. Check this guy out.”

He sits down next to her, grateful she’s calming down. “He’s from Kyoto…you know, Japan? He says he loves my artwork I’m posting there.” He had been saving this foreign praise to brag to her at some point on their date. Of course, he hadn’t planned to break it out so soon, but under the circumstances, it seemed like the perfect time.

“Wow that’s great,” she says, deadpan. “He does look cool. We can tell our kids about him and his coolness when we’re in line with them at the soup kitchen. ‘I know we’re broke kids…and that your father works hard but can’t sell any artwork to feed us. But hey, that’s okay, because you know what? He’s big in Japan!’ ”

Photo by Skylar Kang from Pexels


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