A Year in Reading: Ken Chen

December 18, 2009 | 3 min read

covercovercoverWe’re all familiar of a certain stereotype of literary fiction as a category of beautiful homework reading, often characterized by stiffening description, upper-middle class liberalism, and a nutritious but often un-fun writing style written with what Virginia Woolf referred to as a brass pen. Things are even worse for so-called multicultural literature, relegated as it often is to what novelist Amitava Kumar has called “the ghetto of identity” and typically thought of as sentimental, auto-exotifying, and irrelevant. While my line of work typically precludes me from picking favorites—I’m the head of a literary arts nonprofit called The Asian American Writers’ Workshop—it often seems to me that the mode for many Asian American writers is less memoiristic or dramatic than comic. I’m thinking of a number of recent books that are linguistically playful, compulsively readable, and, you might say, somewhat agnostic when it comes to matters of race, such as Ed Park’s Personal Days, Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, Ed Lin’s This Is A Bust, Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook, and Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects, among many others.

covercoverTwo books in this category—Monica Ferrell’s The Answer Is Always Yes and H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy—both follow their picaresque, if somewhat tentative, protagonists on their quest for cultural cachet, boozy good times, and, more equivocally, young love in New York. These exuberant novels are field guides to New York subcultures of the recently expired present—the ‘90s club scene and the weeks after 9/11, respectively—and drip with pop cultural, status-conscious, anthropological detail. (You could call them the nerdy poet wing of lad lit.) They do a good job depicting one of the virtues of life in New York: its wonderful unpleasantness, as espied in the perpetually unshaven, hungover, nocturnal state of their main characters.

What if Nabokov wrote a college movie? Monica Ferrell’s The Answer Is Always Yes tells the story of NYU freshman Matt Acciaccatura, a closet nerd desperate to become cool, who inexplicably ends up as the promoter at one of the hottest clubs in New York. Yes is about coolness, which seems 1) dubious and manufactured, 2) asymptotically out of reach and sought only by unhealthy climbers, and 3) a state of ecstasy. This is probably the only novel that documents both that word’s eponymous pharmaceutical twin in millennial rave culture and the word’s mystic etymology: ecstasy refers to a state of rapturous displacement from one’s own body. As Matt learns, no one can live in a state of ecstasy (or coolness) for long. While he’s often an angry and neurotic striver, as brand name-conscious as Madame Bovary and disempowered as a teen shooter, the novel seems secretly about something more innocent: the less adventurous realm not of ecstasy, but of happiness—ephemeral, lyrical, mundane.

Huck Finn via global youth culture and post-9/11 detention, Home Boy follows Shehzad nee Chuck who occupies the three roles of the South Asian man in the American imagination: he starts the novel as a finance worker, spends the middle as a taxi driver, and by the end is detained by the Federal government under suspicions of terrorism. Chuck, like most of the characters in the novel, possesses two names, signaling his dial allegiances to both the Asia of Nusrat tunes, the verses of Faiz, and transcontinental flights to Karachi and to the America of the Big Apple, The Great Gatsby, and gangsta rap. At one point someone calls Chuck a “homeboy”—which immediately makes him question his ethnic allegiances, like a neurotic Roth narrator. Yet I think the novel’s point is that ethnicity is not an overriding kingdom that trumps other parts of our identity. Rather, the lava of culture—the novels and poems we love, our favorite beers and pop songs—creeps over everything and accretes into our personality. The constant detritus of culture gives the novel a Bellow-sian capaciousness (here’s the diction of the opening page: boulevardiers, dialectic, postcolonial, Telemundo, crazy motherfucker, Big Butt), which represents an attempt to swallow a Baedeker of old school rhymes, barfly one-liners, and diasporic factoids into the American vocabulary.

More from A Year in Reading

is the 2009 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the oldest annual literary award in the United States for his debut poetry collection Juvenilia, which will come out in April 2010. He is the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the most prominent literary arts nonprofit in support of Asian American literature. Read more at kenchen.org