by Tara Friedman
November 15, 2022
Tara Friedman currently resides in Eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and family. When not writing or teaching, she is happily immersed in a variety of outdoor activities. She proudly serves as English faculty at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. While she presented and published on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy, her current research focuses on resilience in children and young adults, literature and the environment, and American humor.
Idol, Burning by Rin Usami, Asa Yoneda (Translator); HarperCollins Publishers; 144 pages; $24.99
In her new novel, Idol, Burning, up-and-coming author Rin Usami illuminates the dark corners of social media’s pervasive reach, toxic fan culture, and alienating loneliness. Through the adolescent lens of Akari, an impressionable high school junior in Japan, Usami’s nonjudgmental prose takes its time exploring the intensity and pitfalls of fandom culture. By shining her bright light on classic themes of toxicity, identity formation, and acceptance in new ways, Usami solidifies her place as an award-winning young author to watch.
Translated by Asa Yoneda and coupled with Leslie Hung’s intimate cover and interior art, Usami’s beautiful prose masterfully unravels Akari’s obsession with her idol or “oshi” Masaki Ueno, member of the J-pop group Maza Maza, and his dramatic fall from grace. Usami’s patience is risky – not much happens in terms of plot development – but her unapologetic focus on the psychological infiltration of social media on youth culture is effective in its poetic pursuits. While Akari’s numbness to the outside world and its daily, mundane tasks of living, such as going to school and working, teeters right on the edges of madness, Usami’s vivid depictions of the toxicity of her aliveness are what stick days after finishing the book. Akari states, “I felt uneasy unless I was around my oshi. For the past few days, the rectangular device had been like my room at home.” She continues, “He alone moved me, spoke to me, accepted me.” Select audiences may find it difficult at the very least and downright troublesome at times to identify with the oft irrelevant noise of social media and one’s reliance on and idolization of a stranger. However, Usami tactfully avoids blame and instead peels back obsession to reveal a teenager’s deep desire for acceptance from peers, family, and friends.
Perhaps the novel’s best literary achievement is Usami’s quiet resistance: to traditional plot structures, to static characters, to expected outcomes in the bildungsroman genre. Through Akari’s journey, we avoid fearing that which we do not understand. While they may seem trivial to some, young Akari’s online observations are quite insightful: “I’d come to know my followers’ lives through the screen and feel close to them. Just as they thought of me as a calm, dependable type, maybe they were each a little different than they seemed. But this world where I showed up with my half-made-up persona was a kinder place.” Akari failures in her offline relationships with family and peers, and her presence in traditional societal systems, are tense at best. Her own immediate family cannot comprehend her dedication to her oshi – all of her money goes to the purchase of Maza Maza concert tickets and memorabilia. In comparison, her online persona is confident, determined to “[get] to know his [Ueno’s] existence, [to try] to sense my own.” Akari’s use of creative expression through blogging allows her the comfort and space to process feelings through writing – a tenet of narrative therapy and identity formation. Akari believes, “My angle was simply to keep trying to understand him, as a person and as an artist. I wanted to see the world through his eyes.” Usami’s compassion in these snapshots of resistance, while incomprehensible to some, demonstrates a mastery of character-driven stories seen from the likes of J.D. Salinger and Kate Chopin.
In an illustration of the intense power of social media, Akari laments, “there’s really nothing you can do about a fireball, is there? The flames get fanned from all directions, someone tosses in more fuel, in the form of old tweets or pictures, and sends the fire in a new direction.” Usami highlights the absurdity of what gains traction online and calls foul to those who use it to stoke the flames of hatred and division. While part cautionary tale, Idol, Burning will not be an easy read for some, but it is a necessary one for those grasping to accept the very real fear of the unknown. Maybe the antithesis to the great darkness and vast loneliness of social media is our willingness to be the light: to brighten the path of understanding to see shared humanity within ourselves and each other.
Light and Learning in the Dark World of Rin Usami’s Idol, Burning
Image by Sasin Tipchai on Pexels