After I returned home from seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, something made me pick Charles Frazier's 1997 novel Cold Mountain off the shelf. The book is memorable for the way it overwhelms the reader with new information through its mining of an obsolete dictionary of retired words from the Civil War era - tools that are no longer in existence, flowers that aren't common, songs that aren't sung, and so on (I'm still not sure that I know what a tompion or an offscouring is). The point of drowning the reader in detail is to put the author's credibility as a narrator beyond question, and it works. It wasn't until I saw the film version of Cold Mountain a couple of years ago that my opinion of the work was brought down a peg or two. Aside from a crackerjack performance by Nicole Kidman, the story had little to recommend it; there was no real dramatic heft or resonance. I've never picked up Arthur Golden's Memoirs, but after seeing the film I'm convinced that the book must be in the mold of Cold Mountain.
If Memoirs of a Geisha is not about the fine points of time and place in Imperial Japan, then it must be about what it's about. And what it's about-about is the pageantry and romance that awaits a woman who sells her vagina at auction. The film goes out of its way to remind us that geishas are not prostitutes, but so do the escort ads in the Manhattan yellow pages. Pay no attention. A girl who is 'selected' to become a geisha will spend the better part of her reproductive life learning how to please a man. She brings him a tablecloth if he needs a tablecloth, laughs at his jokes whether or not they are funny, makes with cheap entertainments like fan-dances on command, and is always within ear-shot to dispense fortune-cookie aphorisms that do not betray any personal thoughts or opinions or desires. She offers more or less the same kind of companionship as the talking robot from Rocky IV. At the climax of a geisha's geishahood, a bidding war between powerful men erupts, and her virginity is put on the block. If she's lucky.