The main character of Oh!, a young American named Zack Hana, travels to Japan to solve three mysteries: He is trying to uncover the secret story of his grandfather's youth, he wants to discover why he's wrapped in a shroud of apathy, and he's searching for one true instance of mono no aware, an old, possibly extinct Japanese term that, according to a character in Oh!, defines a moment that is "not sentimental or symbolic but rather a true feeling that floats calmly throughout the mind and body. It's what we feel when we experience something that makes us cry 'oh!'" Not all of these mysteries will be solved.
For an existential mystery, Oh! speeds along at a steady clip, and Shimoda sketches Japan with the panache of an excellent travel writer. Hana gets in trouble with the law and investigates a local phenomenon in which strangers meet on the internet and make pacts to commit suicide together. He picks up a girlfriend in the listless sort of way that only a young man in his 20s traveling around a foreign country can, and he keeps secrets from his small group of friends for no good reason except for the fact that he's new to town and nobody will ask too many questions. He's in a foreign country of his own creation.
There's no doubt that small Seattle publisher Chin Music Press publishes gorgeous books: Oh! features color plates, illustrations, and glossy paper throughout. You'd have to think back to the very dawn of McSweeney's to find a new hardcover publisher that thinks of a book as a beautifully designed object. Some of the whiz-bang production values are a little too much—interstitial pages feature bold print on top of abstract grayscale photography, reminiscent of the shenanigans that took place in the early wilderness of Photoshop—but the experience of reading Oh! is in itself a definition of mono no aware, an expression of astonishment. It's a singular reading experience.
Todd Shimoda reads Sat June 27, Panama Hotel, 607 S Main St, 6 pm, free.