Appreciations, Mr. Noodle
I’m not sure what it is about Japan that encourages people to write self-indulgent sex memoirs. Some, like Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, are profound classics that will live far beyond the lifespan if their author. Some, like Josh Muggin’s How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul are slightly amateurish in their style but painfully honest and insightful. Some are just unreadable.
Andy Raskin’s entry into the genre, “The Ramen King and I,” falls somewhere in the middle. It is certainly readable, being the kind of breezy, quick pop writing with short chapters that you can blow through in a few days, if not sooner. Fairly light on content, I can’t say that this is a book that will linger after the last page is closed. But it is a fun one-off read.
The scenario follows Andy through a series of failed relationships (where he cheated and lied), and into the world of craigslist and fast, easy seduction. Eventually coming to terms with himself as a sex addict, he seeks help and gets a mentor, Matt, who encourages Andy to abstain from sex and dating for 90 days and to write letters he will never send to God or someone he respects. Andy chooses Momofuku Ando, the Japanese creator of instant ramen, as the target for his healing.
The first half of “The Ramen King and I” was tough reading for me. Raskin is fairly full of himself (“conceited,” as he later owns up to), and this section reads like someone who is trying to write about their mis-spent youth as if it was a bad thing, but is secretly really proud of it. Raskin performs legendary feats: After six months of studying Japanese, he can read a Japanese newspaper, something that takes normal students years to accomplish. He casually gets his MBA from an ivy league university, then jet sets back and from between Japan and the US for the next several years in various high-paying consultant jobs. He can walk into an exclusive restaurant, show off his food skills, and be thanked by the chef for coming, something that “never happens to first-timers.” He can easily go from saying “hello” to a girl in a café to watching her undress in less than an hour.
Of course, all of this is said with the point of “look at what a shallow, bad guy I was” but you can tell Raskin doesn’t really believe that and the whole smarmy tone of it just makes you want to reach through the pages of the book and slap the guy around a bit.
The second half is when the book really takes off, and I am glad that I made it that far. There is a greater level of honesty and introspection, and when he gets put on the 90-day sex fast by his sponsor Matt, Andy is forced to focus on other things in his life. That means that “The Ramen King and I” gets to be more than a bragging recounting of his sexual exploits and food knowledge. The letters to Momofuku Ando take on a deeper meaning, and the whole tone and voice of the book alter, become more real and thus more interesting. I wish the entire book had been at the same level.
One personal disappointment with “The Ramen King and I” is that there is actually very little to do with Momofuku Ando. I lived in Ikeda, Osaka for several years, where Momofuku Ando’s house and the Instant Ramen Museum are, so I was hoping that Raskin would incorporate more of that into his book. I have been to the museum several times and was there when Momofuku died. (I also got e-mailed the “Appreciations, Mr. Noodle” article by just about everyone I knew.) Sadly, Momofuku remains little more than an otherworldly focus for Raskin, and never becomes more than a name and some clever sayings. For me, there was too much Andy and not enough Ando.
For those who know something about Japan and have read a few memoirs of this type, you are probably going to have a hard time believing that “The Ramen King and I” is a strictly honest story. Like Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, some of the Japan-based parts of the story seems forced and don’t really ring true. That is forgivable though, as I am sure he needed to condense things for a wider audience.