The Fourth Treasure

This isn’t the most moving novel I’ve read recently, but it’s in many ways the most interesting, and it’s certainly the most beautifully designed.

The author is a third-generation Japanese American who earned a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and works at Colorado State University as a cognitive scientist doing research in artificial intelligence. This is his second novel.

The book’s title refers to the “four treasures” of shodô, the Japanese art of calligraphy: brush, paper, ink and inkstone. The novel is a romantic mystery of sorts built around an ancient inkstone in the possession of an elderly shodô teacher, or sensei, who owns a small studio in the East Bay. Bouncing back and forth from ancient and modern Kyoto to today’s Berkeley and San Francisco, it’s also the story of a young Japanese-American woman, Hana Suzuki, a student in neurobiology at Cal. When the sensei suffers a stroke, she decides to study how it affects his calligraphy—and through this search discovers much about herself.

The book makes splendid use of marginalia, including an ongoing series of explications of shodô, with gorgeous calligraphy by Shimoda’s wife Linda. Intellectually, it’s a fascinating exploration of this ancient art form, and also of the complexities of neuroscience. These qualities, and the breadth of Shimoda’s tale, make up for his blandness as a stylist. There’s a coolness in his prose that could be called Zen-like but sometimes just seems flat. I kept reading, though, captured by Shimoda’s intelligence and knowledge and the book’s physical beauty, if not by emotion.