I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore. I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn’t sure had been written or was going to be.
Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting — you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven — the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot’s Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. “Waiting is an enchantment,” writes Roland Barthes in The Lover’s Discourse, to which Eugenides’s heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; “The Festivity is what is waited for.”
I waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and “slightly anxious.” Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard’s great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard’s mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn’t get into grad school and she’s not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord.
In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don’t know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast.”
Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of “clean-sheet Wednesday,” and who didn’t bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don’t hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel — his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York.
The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a “Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn’t just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy.” Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: “it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.” We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen — and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes’s illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters — is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast — Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby — are intensely unlikable).
The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It’s a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine’s bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine’s WASP mystique largely endures.
That Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine’s father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with “When your cousin graduated from Williams…” Alton’s “voice was surprisingly good; he’d been in an a capella singing group at Yale.” Madeleine comes to Mitchell’s guest room “dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else.” Perhaps these last two are Mitchell’s Detroiter observations more than the novel’s, but they sometimes grate.
I can’t know anything about the author’s process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine’s shelf list — the “Colette novels she read on the sly” and “the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis…” I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover.
But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors.
Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine’s shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, “and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” But, it’s immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She’s May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre.
At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that “my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all,” a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides’s book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he
…clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it…His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth — who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful.
Mitchell’s Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John.
This novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: “You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, “walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted,” which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides’s characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more.
I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I’m not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend.
Madeleine’s Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who “wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.” Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants “a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself” and who additionally wants “something to happen” to its characters “in a place resembling the world.” As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn’t do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel’s technical complexity.
But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn’t even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What‘s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)
Clarence Thomas speaks!
Among the outrageous occurrences in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, in which a black man finds himself before the Supreme Court for conducting a “six-month campaign of localized apartheid” in his native Los Angeles, Justice Thomas’s decision to utter something from the bench is the most unlikely. We first see the notoriously reticent justice as a specimen of cool detachment:
There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokens hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor, silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice.
But so heinous are the narrator’s crimes against racial unity that a furious Thomas, who has famously almost never spoken during oral arguments throughout his career, is roused to question the defendant’s sanity. And with good reason: In an effort to “bring people together,” the narrator has introduced segregation and slavery to the black and Latino community of Dickens, Calif., a neighborhood so bad that authorities have removed it from official city maps.
Justice Thomas breaks his silence because, “like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers.” By contrast, satirists, unlike judges (and moralists, with whom satirists are sometimes confused), see any system, principle, or self-evident truth as vulnerable to attack. Beatty is a true satirist, and therefore his irreverence extends to the 13th and 14th Amendments. Like his narrator, he is a “social pyromaniac,” conducting a scorched-earth campaign against piety, whether pertaining to the hallowed Constitutional or the “proud history of [his] race.” There is no fixed moral stance from which the satirist operates, which makes him particularly well suited to take on the pervasive immorality, and inanity, of America’s “dysfunctional plutocracy.”
In this his fourth novel, Beatty returns to Los Angeles, the primary setting for his buoyant debut, The White Boy Shuffle, in which a young poet accidentally attains the status as “savior of the blacks.” Los Angeles is a “mind-numbingly racially segregated” city, from its neighborhoods to its comedy scene, “the epicenter of social apartheid.” Beatty’s previous novel, Slumberland, dealt with another segregation-haunted metropolis, Berlin, where the “inexorable ghost” of the Berlin Wall remained even after its collapse. In that novel, a so-called jukebox sommelier hunts down a reclusive avant-garde musician who, for years, had been producing legendary beats from within (pre-Fall) East Berlin, the “Wall inspir[ing] him like the Skinner box inspires the rat.” After the Wall falls, the two collaborate to create a performance piece-cum-concert to “celebrate the city’s resegregation” by sonically rebuilding the barrier: “The music was so real that anyone within earshot would feel as if they could reach out and touch it. They’d have to figure out for themselves if the wall of sound was confinement or protection.”
Beatty restages this ambiguously divisive act in The Sellout, this time as a social rather than artistic experiment. After painting a line around Dickens’s borders, the narrator admires its “implication of solidarity and community” even as the narrator voices his ambivalence towards his own project by likening the enclosure to a quarantine. Anything is preferable to erasure, even a “…community-cum-leper colony.
The narrator (we only learn his last name, Me) lives on The Farms, an area zoned for agriculture in the heart of a ghetto. Unlike the other inhabitants, he makes his living cultivating the land — “forty acres and a fool” as he describes his occupation, one that hints at his future exploits. Farmers, he tells us, are “natural segregationists” who parcel up their land to allow space for every plant to grow. As Beatty relishes confronting stereotypes head-on, his narrator “chooses to specialize in the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me — watermelon and weed,” the latter sold under colorful names such as “Ataxia” and “Anglophobia.”
Me was homeschooled by his father, a man as committed to his son’s education as Laurence Sterne’s Walter Shandy, but considerably more demented. A psychology professor, informal neighborhood crisis counselor, and “sole practitioner” of “Liberation Psychology,” which adapts famous behavioral experiments to his own specifically African-American concerns, he subjects his son to all manner of deranged trials. Some are meant to condition the narrator to the harsh realities of racial prejudice; others simply use him as a guinea pig to test current behavioral theories. In one experiment, he places toy police cars, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and The Economist in his infant son’s crib, then fires off his gun into the ceiling while screaming racial slurs. In another, he publicly mugs him to test a hypothesis about the bystander effect, which holds that people are less likely to help a victim the more witnesses are around. It doesn’t go as expected.
Later, Me’s father is senselessly gunned down by the cops, a tragedy followed by Dickens being “exiled to the netherworld of invisible L.A. communities” by unaccountable bureaucrats:
Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.
As the first step in his journey to become himself, the narrator attempts to reanimate the vanished city, beginning by replacing the “DICKENS — NEXT EXIT” sign on the 110 Freeway that had been taken down. It’s too tempting for Beatty to resist contemplating future signs that mock some of the perceptions about the community from outsiders: “CAUTION — BLACK ON BLACK CRIME AHEAD” and “WATCH OUT FOR FALLING HOME PRICES.”
The narrator next sets out to bring back Jim Crow-era regulations, including priority seating for whites on buses and segregated businesses and education. The problem is that the high school is already essentially segregated, the white families long since having fled. And so he must establish a Potemkin village of sorts: the wholly illusory and all-white Wheaton Academy, a “sleek, state-of-the-art plate-glass building that looked more like a death star than a place of learning.” In reality, the neighboring school is just an empty lot with a painting of the campus on the gate.
Accompanying the quixotic narrator during his inner-city adventures is his own vassal, Hominy Jenkins, former child actor on The Little Rascals and “living national embarrassment” for being the butt of countless, unbelievably racist jokes on that show. (Beatty reaches Pynchonian levels of zaniness describing lost episodes screened at the L.A. Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation.) Refusing to disown his television career, he instead revels in being the embodiment of “American primitivism,” an attitude the narrator, who has spent his life chafing under the “burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it,” envies: “I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike American, has turned the page.” In an instance where Beatty needlessly oversteps the mark to highlight a cheap irony about the freedom to choose bondage, Hominy also demands that he be the narrator’s slave, reasoning that “Freedom can kiss [his] postbellum black ass.” Hominy’s desire for slavery and humiliation — the narrator farms out the regular whipping to a dominatrix — comes across as belabored and flattens a caricature even further.
The more outrageous the narrator’s social experiments are, the more they succeed. The painted borders and road signs foster a sense of pride in the community and eventually puts Dickens back on the map; the passengers on the segregated buses become more courteous; and the public school’s scores improve (even if it prompts a panicked cover story from the “New-ish Republic” entitled “The New Jim Crow: Has Public Education Clipped the Wings of the White Child?”) The contrast between pre- and post-segregated Dickens is a tale of two cities.
All of these beneficial effects are casually reported to the narrator by his bus-driver girlfriend or the high school principal, which identifies one of the major weaknesses of the novel. The satirical workings seem cursorily conceived compared to, say, how Helen DeWitt imagines the contraption for an anonymous office prostitution ring in Lightning Rods, or how in A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift provides detailed annual accounting figures and suggestions for what to do with the flayed baby skins (“admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen”). Rather, Beatty’s narrator performs some brazen action and backs off, only marginally interested in the results until someone gives him a brief progress report on the wondrous effect of his segregationist efforts or a district judge pops up to provide a rationale:
In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precept, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out the fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.
Perhaps, but this post-hoc, overly tidy account of a coherent social vision doesn’t jibe with the anarchic spirit of the novel, which in essence works better as a loose framework for Beatty to deploy his comic talent. Bit for bit, Beatty is among the funniest authors writing today, whether describing the Crips applying for NATO membership (reasoning that they could “kick the shit out of Estonia”) or making wry comments on the lackluster D.C. tourist experience: “Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war.” Looking to find a sister city, Dickens is rejected by Juarez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasha (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) for being too violent, too polluted, and too black, respectively. The narrator makes his own list of candidates, cities that “disappeared under dubious circumstances,” including Thebes (the sand-covered Cecil B. DeMille movie set) and the Lost City of White Male Privilege, “a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).”
This being the same mischievous Beatty who included a presidential candidate speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton in his anthology of African-American humor, Hokum, satirical targets are lined up, easy or otherwise. Beatty mocks those “brass-bangled teacher-poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz;” proposes “Whitey Week” as a “counterbalance to the onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing that took place during Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months;” and skewers a group called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics” discussing the problems facing the “indigent black community” and the meaning of bimonthly. The group is led by Foy Cheshire: philosopher, social critic, entertainer, blowhard, strident opponent of the narrator’s efforts, and bowdlerizer of classic works of American literature, e.g., The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Your Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit for Mark Twain’s masterwork.
Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. (Philip Roth’s kvetcher, the Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission of Human Opportunity, is trapped inside a Jewish joke, while Beatty’s, “City Planner in Charge of Restoration and Segregation” is caught in a case of “standard black inner-city absurdity.”) It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind.
Clarence Thomas speaks, which is novel indeed, but I’d rather listen to Beatty.
Since The Millions interviewed Gene Luen Yang four years ago, he has been writing and drawing prolifically. His graphic novel Level Up portrayed a young Asian American man destined for medical school who secretly dreamed of playing video games. His next project was the epic Boxers & Saints, a diptych that follows two characters living through the Boxer Rebellion in China. The two intertwining Boxers & Saints graphic novels—they were sold as a set—string a coherent narrative from a complex period of history at the turn of the 20th century as the crumbling Qing empire tussled with European colonial powers. Yang’s clean line drawings bring order to the chaotic events, and all of the characters in the story are fallible and believable.
What unites Gene Luen Yang’s varying projects is his ambition. In many ways, Yang has taken on the task of bringing untold stories from Asian and Asian American history to readers in the U.S. And remarkably, he moves easily between literary works and popular culture, because while he was busy finishing Boxers & Saints he was also writing comic book adaptations of the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender animated cartoon. He did so not just out of love for the series but also in response to the live action movie by director M. Night Shyamalan, who cast a Caucasian boy for the leading role of Aang, and generally weakened the role of Asian culture in the story. (The movie was widely panned.) That Yang was willing to continue an extremely successful and already fully realized universe in The Avatar demonstrates his willingness to take risks and to collaborate.
Gene Luen Yang is not the only Asian American writer exploring myths and superheroes. Korean American author Chang-Rae Lee also depicted the Japanese colonization of China in his exquisitely written novel The Surrendered, in which the character Hector Brennan possesses the immortality of a god yet becomes mired in his own, very human failings. The novelist Charles Yu’s short story collection Third Class Superhero examined superpowers with humor and sensitivity, and his follow-up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is in many ways the capstone of the genre of meta-science fiction. A walk down Artist Alley in any comicon will introduce you to numerous skillful Asian American comic book artists hocking their wares in what is slowly becoming a more diverse profession.
Gene Luen Yang’s latest effort is The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel no less ambitious in scope than his previous works. Yang came up with the story after learning about one of the first Asian American artists to work in the comic book industry, Chu Hing. Chu Hing worked during an efflorescence of comic book stories during World War II, and created a series called The Green Turtle to support the struggles of America’s ally against the Japanese—China. The Green Turtle, a super hero who fought against the nefarious Japanese with his side-kick Burma Boy, never revealed his face or his origin story in the comics. There is also little biographical information about the creator Chu Hing himself, and the series was canceled after only five issues.
Working from the original texts, Yang resurrected The Green Turtle with a fully fleshed-out origin story and adventure in The Shadow Hero. The main character Hank is now a Chinese-American boy growing up in Chinatown in the fictional coastal city of San Incendio. His parents own a dry goods shop, and he is happy working beside his father as a stockboy. Yet his mother has bigger ideas for her son. While being robbed, she is rescued by a superhero named The Anchor of Justice, and she decides that her son should grow up to be just like him. The only problem is that Hank has no super powers. After a series of comical ordeals in which she tries to inspire him, Hank only gains powers after his father is murdered by a Chinatown kingpin. It turns out his father had made a deal with a turtle spirit from mainland China, and young Hank can inherit the spirit and ask it for whatever powers he desires. Hank then sets out to avenge his father’s death, confronting gangsters, kung fu vixens, and corrupt police along the way.
In The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang collaborated with Singapore-based illustrator Sonny Liew, and it becomes apparent why this was a wise choice after a few pages. Sonny Liew’s panels pop with vitality, and he has mastered the flow of sequential action with original paneling and styling. The book crackles with Yang’s slap-stick humor—so difficult to portray in comic book art—and the characters feel fully imagined. Hank’s mother in particular is a complex, flawed, and totally believable character and Sonny Liew’s drawings of her are charming.
However, certain elements which made Yang’s other works so enjoyable are less compelling in this volume. The story moves along at a nice clip, and there are glimpses of Watchmen-creator Alan Moore’s influence in Yang’s treatment of The Anchor of Justice. But it is not exactly clear what 1940s America thinks of superheroes—are they vigilantes or saviors? Also, the racist stereotypes that made Yang’s bestselling graphic novel American Born Chinese so provocative are not quite as well considered in this story. To be sure, racism against Chinese Americans abounded in the 1940s, but they could perhaps have used more elucidation in this text than they receive.
Those are minor quibbles because there is only so much you can pack into an origin story. To truly appreciate The Shadow Hero, you need to apply two more lenses. The first lens is provided in the book itself and the second lens relates to Yang’s greater oeuvre as an author. At the end of the text, the book includes an issue of the original Green Turtle as created by Chu Hing in the 1940s. It’s not an especially interesting story—the Green Turtle wins the day by firing “2,000 rounds per minute” into the “Japs”—but in several panels there is a peculiar black shadow that hovers over the superhero. Chu Hing apparently never explained what the shadow is. It’s amazing that Yang developed a credible explanation for it and created a logical structure that incorporated the other elements of the original Green Turtle. He was, in short, able to develop a new story while adhering to the limited parameters of the original, and this is nothing short of remarkable. It’s like coloring within the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting.
The second reason why The Shadow Hero is worth reading is that it has the elements of an enduring Asian American superhero story. Yang’s comic leaves enough avenues for future explanation that he could comfortably create more volumes in this series. (I wouldn’t mind if he incorporated the Green Turtle’s cool jet from the original comics.) There is still a disturbing lack of published entertainment created by ethnic minorities that feature characters driving forward the narrative with agency.
Gene Luen Yang is enabling a generation of Asian Americans—or, let’s be specific here, because the community is diverse, Chinese Americans—to imagine their own stories. And he has set a very high bar. He writes serious, contemplative works, he entertains, and he is an excellent line artist who is humble enough to put down his own pencils and to allow someone else to draw it better. He takes risks that don’t always pan out, but he shows the courage to take on widely differing projects across a variety of genres. One day perhaps, we’ll all have our own personal super heroes, and if they are as thoughtful, humorous, and principled as the Shadow Hero, there’s nothing wrong with that.