Thursday, May 27, 2021

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

 Source of book: I own this.


This book is one of two Conrad books that I was given by a colleague who was downsizing. They are small leatherbound (not hardcover) books printed by Doubleday in 1926. I suspect they were intended as pocket editions, and they are rather unique in my collection. 

Under Western Eyes: CONRAD, Joseph

It has been a few years since I read Conrad. I blogged about The Secret Agent eight years ago. Prior to that, I read The Rescue - but that was years before I started blogging. 


Conrad’s writing is always superb, which never fails to astonish me. Conrad was born in the Ukraine, to Polish parents, and didn’t learn English until his 20s. He did, however, have a knack for languages, eventually learning at least a half dozen to the point of fluency, and mastering English in a way that many native speakers never do. He greatly influenced later 20th Century writers, from Hemingway on down. 


Under Western Eyes was written right after The Secret Agent, and shares some common ideas, namely, Russian anarchists as the focus of the story. Unlike The Secret Agent, set in Britain, this book takes place in St. Petersburg and Geneva, and, except for the narrator - an Englishman who serves the role of the Chorus in this book - the characters are all foreigners, mostly Russian. 


In researching the background of the book after I finished it, I discovered that Conrad intended this book to be a response to Crime and Punishment - and now that I know that, many things about the book make sense. Conrad was not a fan of Dostoyevsky, apparently, and found Crime and Punishment to be less than good. The response, in the form of this book, however, doesn’t seem so much a rebuttal of Dostoyevsky’s conclusions, but of his very premise. Ironically, it isn’t difficult to see that Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment in particular greatly influenced Conrad’s writing. 


For those who haven’t read Crime and Punishment, the student Raskolnikov (great name in English, although I doubt the author intended it) decides to murder and rob and elderly pawnbroker. After the murder, his conscience haunts him until he finally turns himself in. Dostoyevsky intended the book to be a critique of so-called “Western” philosophy, arguing for a more religious - and specifically “Russian” morality. Conrad tackles this head-on with this book, making the argument that “Russian” values (as opposed to Western values) are centered in totalitarian cruelty - both the Czarist establishment of the time, and the revolutionary elements that would eventually prevail. Conrad is not exactly wrong about that, honestly. And he came by his views from personal experience - his father was imprisoned as a dissident. 


Conrad takes a different approach to telling a similar story. The student, Razumov, is an illegitimate child - probably of a Russian aristocrat - who has literally no living family. His only chance of advancement is to study hard, and get a position in the Russian bureaucracy. So he is indeed studying hard and showing promise, when disaster strikes.


Razumov has made a habit of being quiet and just listening to the various philosophical debates among his fellow students. He refuses to take any side, because he worries that doing so could jeopardize his future, either by alienating his peers, or getting caught up in revolutionary ideas that could torpedo his future career. To the extent Razumov has political opinions, he is in favor of reform from within the system. (Note: this is how I tend to be, my natural tendency. The “reform” party, not the keeping my opinions to myself part. Not so good at that…) Unfortunately, Razumov’s reticence leads a revolutionary student, Viktor Haldin, to believe that Razumov is a fellow revolutionary. 


After a bit of the framing story (the Englishman is given Razumov’s journals), the main part of the plot begins with an assassination. A brutal government minister, Mr. de P___, is killed by a bomb, which also kills one of the two assassins. The other escapes. This incident is based directly off of the real-life assassination of Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve, who persecuted dissidents before being killed by an anarchist bomb in 1904. 


The assassin turns out to be Haldin, who sneaks into Razumov’s apartment while he is in class, and expects Razumov to help him escape. 


This is both a catastrophe for Razumov, and a dilemma that has no good resolution, no matter what he does. Initially, he tries to assist Haldin, but the man who is supposed to smuggle him out is in a drunken stupor. After going back and forth, Razumov eventually consults his aristocratic patron (and probably his father), who assists him in going to the police. Haldin is arrested and executed. 


Razumov’s dilemma is palpable. If the authorities find out he is connected in any way to Haldin, his career is over, and he probably will be imprisoned for a long time, even though innocent. So, Razumov feels he has little choice. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to betray Haldin - he has some sympathy for reform and even revolution, as long as he isn’t involved. And also, Razumov isn’t a bad person. He doesn’t want to harm anyone, he just wants to be left the hell alone. As Conrad describes him, “Razumov was one of those men who, living in a period of mental and political unrest, keep an instinctive hold on normal, practical, everyday life. He was aware of the emotional tension of his time; he even responded to it in an indefinite way. But his main concern was with his work, his studies, and with his own future.”


Haldin, therefore, has done violence to Razumov, by involving him in a plot he has no desire to be in on. I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for Haldin, honestly. If someone pulled that stunt on me, I would certainly kick them out of my house forthwith. Sorry. 


So, that is the first part of the story. The book then switches to Geneva, where Haldin’s mother and naive sister Natalia have fled (at Haldin’s insistence). They have no idea what happened to Haldin, because he was supposed to have joined them. Natalia has his last letter, in which he praises Razumov, but they only find out about Haldin’s death later. The situation puzzles Natalia and her mother, because they cannot imagine that Haldin would have just let himself be captured without trying to escape. 


Razumov shows up in Geneva, sent there as a spy - he has been recruited by the police bureaucrat who subjected him to an interview that is a direct parallel to that endured by the actually guilty Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Razumov is seen (thanks to Haldin’s letter) as a sort of hero, and the anarchists try to recruit him. His conscience is troubling him, however, and he is unable to commit to either side. This being Conrad, Razumov gets to play the part of the antihero, unable to triumph over either circumstance or his own demons. 


Conrad is a master of this sort of book, one where deeply flawed characters break down mentally and spiritually as a result of circumstances and their own weaknesses. It isn’t an inspiring story in that sense, but it also doesn’t seem truly hopeless. Razumov is a failure by his own standards, but his conscience eventually wins out. He may not find a way to success, but at least he finally refuses to betray his own values. 


I should also comment here that one thing I like about Conrad’s “anarchist” novels is that they avoid his racist and colonialist views that mar many of his other books, notably Heart of Darkness. Because Conrad himself bridges the gap between the “West” and the Russian “East,” he is able to treat both sides with nuance and empathy - and a solid understanding of both. 


And, I must say, Conrad’s writing is just so very good. Every time I read one of his books, I marvel at his use of language. It isn’t flowery, it isn’t complex, but his word choices are so perfect, his turns of phrase suited exactly to what he wants to convey. For those of us who take pleasure in the sounds and meanings of words, Conrad is one of those masters that thrill us to the marrow.


Let me give a few examples that particularly stayed with me. This one, from the introductory section, is a great place to start. 


The origin of Mr. Razumov’s record is connected with an event characteristic of modern Russia in the actual fact: the assassination of a prominent statesman - and still more characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.


Seriously. Just read that a few times, and marvel in the way he conveys so many important truths - ones that remain relevant today - in such a beautiful way. Also excellent is the description of the manifesto of Mr. de P____, which sounds so much like Bill Gothard’s view of the world. 


In the preamble of a certain famous State paper he had declared once that “the thought of liberty has never existed in the Act of the Creator. From the multitude of men’s counsel nothing could come but revolt and disorder; and revolt and disorder in a world created for obedience and stability is sin. It was not Reason but Authority which expressed the Divine Intention. God was the Autocrat of the Universe.” It may be that the man who made this declaration believed that heaven itself was bound to protect him in his remorseless defense of Autocracy on this earth.


Conrad also captures Razumov’s feeling of helplessness when caught between these opposing forces. 


The true Razumov had his being menaced by the lawlessness of autocracy - for autocracy knows no law - and the lawlessness of revolution. The feeling that his moral personality was at the mercy of these lawless forces was so strong that he asked himself seriously if it were worthwhile to go on accomplishing the mental functions of that existence which seemed no longer his own. 


For Conrad, the most central issue of the story is Razumov losing his autonomy - of becoming the pawn of forces beyond his control. This is, obviously, the flip side of Crime and Punishment: Razumov doesn’t wrestle with the responsibility of moral choice, but with the fact that he has no real choice - his life’s trajectory has been irreparably altered by Haldin’s choice. All around him now associate him with Haldin and the anarchist cause, even though he is not part of it. 


Again he experienced that sensation of his conduct being taken out of his hands by Haldin’s revolutionary tyranny. 


Later, the narrator discusses the idea of revolution with Natalia, who is ever the idealist. She denies that the Russion revolution-in-the-making is about either class or economic interest. Because she sees it as a conflict that westerners can never fully understand, she dismisses the narrator’s belief that a conflict of ideologies cannot be resolved into some peace attained by violence. 


“Everything is inconceivable,” she said. “The whole world is inconceivable to the strict logic of ideas. And yet the world exists to our senses, and we exist in it. There must be a necessity superior to our conceptions. It is a very miserable and a very false thing to belong to the majority. We Russians shall find some better form of national freedom than an artificial conflict of parties - which is wrong because it is a conflict and contemptible because it is artificial. It is left for us Russians to discover a better way.”


This is a fascinating statement. First, she seems to be endorsing the Pragmatist and Pluralistic views of William James. But then she makes the leap to a more Platonic viewpoint, so to speak, in which the necessity of peace leads to it by ways not known to logic. This is naive, of course, and doubly so in light of future history which was not known to Conrad in 1911, but which he seems to anticipate. Far from creating some new and better way, Russia just found an even more totalitarian system than Tsarism. And polished the old secret police into the even more brutal KGB. Conrad was correct about the lawlessness of both autocracy and revolution. 


Natalia hasn’t come up with these ideas herself, of course. Some she got from her brother. But she is also under the spell of Peter Ivanovich, a revolutionary based on Mikhail Bakunin. In one of several passages, Ivanovich holds forth at length on his philosophy. 


“The great Powers of Europe are bound to disappear - and the cause of their collapse will be very simple. They will exhaust themselves struggling against their proletariat. In Russia it is different. In Russia we have no classes to combat each other, one holding the power of wealth, and the other mighty with the strength of numbers. We have only an unclean bureaucracy in the face of a people as great and as incorruptible as the ocean.”


Yes, that is definitely blither. No one nationality is immune from corruption, to say the least. And the idea of Russia as a classless society oppressed by bureaucrats is as ludicrous then and there as it is here and now - even if the American Right Wing thinks it is true. 


Natalia and the narrator talk often about ideas. He is concerned about her getting swept into the revolution, which he (correctly) notes she does not truly understand. She is too naive, too purehearted, to avoid being crushed by a revolution. I think the Englishman is correct in this assessment of how revolutions go in real life. 


“The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution - not a simple dynastic change or mere reform of institutions - in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, the humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement - but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment - often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured - that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes.” 


That’s exactly right. Conrad would have been thinking of the French Revolution, most likely. His qualification about dynastic succession or reform is probably a reference to the English Civil War, and perhaps the American Revolution, neither of which were true revolutions in the usual sense. Most institutions in both cases were preserved, with reform to the laws and balance of power, and careful maintenance of traditional rights and duties. 


History has proven Conrad correct. Perhaps later reform takes place, but initially, revolutions do indeed sell out their ideas and become captive to the fanatics and rogues. The Englishman could have been describing Mao and the Chinese Communist Revolution too. 


One more minor character is Tekla, an older woman who serves as a servant/companion to the Baroness - a central figure in the revolutionary group. Tekla grew up as the daughter of a finance minister, and was horrified at how others starved during a famine, while her family lived well on a government salary. She gets a monologue of her own, with a fascinating point of view. 


“Upon my word, I would think that finances and all the rest of it are an invention of the devil; only that a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. Finances indeed!”


Baroness de S____ is intriguing as well. She is a believer in the revolution, but is also greedy and thoroughly unscrupulous. In a conversation with Razumov and others, she claims that the key is to “spiritualize” the discontent of the people. 


“Yes, I said spiritualize! How else can you make discontent effective and universal?”


Man, this is really what Evangelicalism has done in the era of Trump. Take people’s discontent - about cultural change, about demographic (aka racial) change, about economic insecurity - and make it into a spiritual battle against everyone outside the tribe. And thus are they willing to support all manner of evil and hate in support of their cause. 


Again, it is Tekla who actually sees through this. 


“I know Peter Ivanovitch sufficiently well. He is a great man. Great men are horrible. Well, that’s it.” 


Tekla tries to persuade Razumov to keep Natalia away from Ivanovich and the Baroness. But he really has no power to do so. 


In the climactic scene, where Razumov bares his soul to Natalia - and confesses that he has hated her and hated Haldin and his entire family for what Haldin did to him - he confesses his love for her as well. It is all tied together and his psyche has crumbled under the strain. 


“But don’t be deceived, Natalia Victorovna. I believed that I had in my breast nothing but an inexhaustible fund of anger and hate for you both. I remembered that he had looked to you for the perpetuation of his visionary soul. He, this man who had robbed me of my hardworking, purposeful existence. I, too, had my guiding idea; and remember that, amongst us, it is more difficult to lead a life of toil and self-denial than to go out in the street and kill from conviction.”


I strongly believe that is true. The rioters who attempted to overthrow our government in January did the easy thing - it isn’t that hard to kill and destroy. The hard work is the quiet life of reform and building. It is unfair to blame Natalia, and Razumov realizes this, which is why he eventually sacrifices himself in an attempt to save her and to clear his own conscience. 


As I said, this is a fascinating book, every bit as thoughtful as the one it was intended to respond to. Conrad links Russia and the West in an unforgettable way, through the struggles of a tragic anti-hero, a pawn of forces he cannot fight. It is particularly impressive that Conrad seems to have anticipated much of the result of the series of revolutions that Russia was just beginning to undergo at the time. Indeed, the trajectory of Russia in the 20th Century seems to have been predicted in significant part by Conrad, drawing entirely on the psychology of the peoples of Europe and Asia - or, perhaps, on universal human nature. 


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill

 Source of book: I own this.


The last few years, I have been collecting various Library of America hardbacks, mostly from library sales. This one, O’Neill’s late plays from 1932 through 1943, was one I found online for a very low price. 


This was my first experience of O’Neill, and I picked The Iceman Cometh both for the interesting name, and because the premise sounded interesting. And interesting it was, although I must say, it is hard to imagine a bleaker play. 


The setting is a dive bar and rooming house in 1912 Greenwich Village. Harry Hope runs it, but he hasn’t been the same since his wife died. The residents are a bunch of down-and-out sorts, from a retired British soldier and his Boer counterpart, to an ex-cop fired for corruption, to a former anarchist. The bartender, Rocky, moonlights as a pimp - his two girls also frequent the saloon. The group wastes their days and nights drinking themselves into a stupor and boasting about what they will do tomorrow. 


The one change to the routine is when Hickey, an itinerant salesman, shows up for Harry’s birthday party. 


Except this year, two things have changed. A younger former anarchist, Parrish, shows up after the arrest of his mother (who he turned over to the cops), and hints that he may be Larry the ex-anarchist’s son. 


And then, when Hickey arrives, he has changed in a big way. He no longer drinks, and he is now a missionary for his new idea: that everyone would be better off if they let go of their “pipe dreams” and faced reality. Exactly what has caused Hickey’s change of heart isn’t revealed until the end, but he claims to be a new man now that he has understood that his pipe dreams will never come true. 


His attempts to convert everyone else cause nothing but misery, of course. For the denizens of Harry’s bar, pipe dreams are the only way they are able to live, and to give up all hope for their futures, or face the truth about who they are would mean a total loss of functionality. By the denouncement, they are all at each other’s throats, miserable, and furious at Hickey. 


The reason the play is so bleak, at least to me, is that it offers only horrible alternatives. I mean, existing in a constant state of stupor is not exactly a good life - and the only way it is possible is the small pensions these guys have. While I suppose all of us do have our delusions and “pipe dreams,” relying on them to function is hardly healthy either. So in that sense, Hickey is right - that manner of living is pretty toxic. But Hickey doesn’t offer a solution either. Is it really better to be a loser with delusions or a loser who knows you are a loser? Is disillusionment better than illusion if it doesn’t lead to anything positive? 


And, as we find out, Hickey himself is a fake - he hasn’t solved anything with his ideas: all he has done is destroy his own life and that of others. 


So where does one go from there? O’Neill never seems to have figured it out. He endured an abusive childhood, suffered from alcoholism and depression all his life, had multiple failed marriages, his children were also troubled and in some cases estranged from him. For years, it was believed that some combination of alcoholism and general ill health killed him, but it was later discovered (with the advent of genetic testing) that he had suffered from a rare neurological disorder that caused him great discomfort and loss of function for at least a decade before it killed him. So yeah, a rough life, and a lot of untreated issues. 


The play itself is interesting to read, but I wonder how difficult it would be to stage. It is almost absurdly “talky.” Characters ramble on and on and the conversations seem to go in circles and repeat later in the play. At reading speed, it is already a bit mind-numbing. But sustaining the interest at the slower speed of speech seems like quite a challenge. Nevertheless, the play was actually a success. 


Also interesting was incredible detail in the stage directions at the beginning of each of the four acts. I mean, like five pages of small print each time, with details such as the angle of tables and the physical descriptions of the characters. It seems a bit of a micromanagement, but I suppose since he is dead, a director could ignore most of it. Reading it, I found it an odd mix of helpful and distracting. I think understanding the basic layout of the bar is good, and some parts of the characters’ personalities are indicated. But other parts seem to be unnecessary and unhelpful in trying to imagine the scene. 


As a lawyer, I found the legal background fascinating. Harry’s establishment is a “Raines Law” hotel. This New York law prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in certain hotels or boarding houses with at least 10 rooms, who served food with the alcohol. The “food,” as depicted in the play, was usually inedible and not intended to be actually eaten - it was just there to comply with the law. As an unexpected consequence, these establishments ended up attracting prostitution and gambling as well. (Note: this lesson was definitely not learned, as Prohibition amply proved.) 


So, a few quotes. Larry the ex-Anarchist is the most cynical of the bunch. He half-heartedly promises to kill himself, but of course he never does. He describes the situation pretty well, after the other denizens manage to mooch some free drinks off of Harry with the promise to pay. 


LARRY: (grinning) I’ll be glad to pay up - tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They’ve all a touching credulity concerning tommorows. (a half drunken mockery in his eyes) It’ll be a great day for them, tomorrow - the Feast of All Fools, with brass bands playing! Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!

ROCKY: (cynically) Yeah, and a ton of hop!

LARRY: (leans toward him, a comical intensity in his low voice) Don’t mock the faith! Have you no respect for religion, you unregenerate Wop? What’s it matter if the truth is that their favoring breeze has the stink of nickel whiskey on its breat, and their sea is a growler of lager and ale, and their ships are long since looted and scuttled and sunk on the bottom? To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. And that’s enough philosophing wisdom to give you for one drink of rot-gut.


Larry later explains why he left the Anarchist movement - and I think he has a point. 


LARRY: (frowns) Forget the anarchist part of it. I’m through with the Movement long since. I saw men didn’t want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they’d have to give up greed, and they’ll never pay that price for liberty. 


Part of the problem for Larry, as he later explains to Parritt, is that he “was born condemned to be one of those who has to see all sides of a question. When you’re damned like that, the questions multiply for you until in the end it’s all question and no answer.” 


Another former anarchist - although I think he is more of a Communist in the vein of Emma Goldman, who influenced the plot elements of play - Hugo, usually passed out, often has the few amusing lines, such as this one. 


HUGO: Hello, leedle peoples! Neffer mind! Soon you vill eat hot dogs beneath the villow trees and trink free vine - (abruptly in a haughty fastidious tone) The champagne vas not properly iced. (with guttural anger) Gottamned liar, Hickey! Does that prove I vant to be aristocrat? I love only the proletariat! I vill lead them! I vill be like a Gott to them! They vill be my slaves! (He stops in bewildered self-amazement - to Larry appealingly) I am very trunk, no, Larry? I talk foolishness. I am so trunk, Larry, old friend, am I not, I don’t know vhat I say?


One of the ongoing subplots is that of Joe, the only black character in the play. He is mostly accepted by the others, at least until Hickey shows up, and the racial tensions ratchet up along with the rest. O’Neill is fairly progressive in how he treats race, even though the characters use slurs without shame. (See also “Wop” above.) Staging this now would be problematic, because of the retrograde attitudes of the characters, honestly. Joe eventually calls some of this out, in his dramatic monologue about leaving to go re-open his gambling house. He drinks his whiskey, then smashes the glass. 


JOE: (with a sneering dignity) I’s on’y savin’ you de trouble, White Boy. Now you don’t have to break it, soon’s my back turned, so’s no white man kick about drinkin’ from de same glass. (He walks stiffly to the street door) I’s tired of loafin’ ‘round wid a lot of bums. I’s a gamblin’ man. I’s gonna get in a big crap game and win me a big bankroll. Den I’ll get de okay to open up my old gamblin’ house for colored men. Den maybe I comes back here sometime to see de bums. Maybe I throw a twenty-dollar bill on de bar and say, “Drink it up,” and listen when dey all pat me on de back and say, “Joe, you sure is white.” But I’ll say, “No, I’m black and my dough is black man’s dough, and you’s proud to drink wid me or you don’t get no drink!” Or maybe I just says, “You can all go to hell. I don’t lower myself drinkin’ wid no white trash!” 


In the end, when Hickey finally confesses everything, he tells of his childhood and later life. I found the bit about his dad to be interesting. 


You’ve heard the old saying, “Minister’s sons are sons of guns.” Well, that was me, and then some. Home was like a jail. I didn’t fall for the religious bunk. Listening to my old man whooping up hell fire and scaring those Hoosier suckers into shelling out their dough only handed me a laugh, although I had to hand it to him, the way he sold them nothing for something. I guess I take after him, and that’s what made me a good salesman. 


Hickey is more right than he realizes. His selling of “face the truth” is very much the same as what his father did. Neither actually promised hope. Gin up a problem to go with the “solution” you have, and sell nothing for something. As I noted, the play offers no solutions either - and O’Neill is up front about that. We are, perhaps, invited to imagine one. Or perhaps the point is that no solution actually exists and we should stop looking for one. That’s veering into nihilism, and is bleak indeed. I don’t see life as that meaningless, obviously. (I mean, read my blog, right?) But it is also easy to see how O’Neill ended up in that place. 


One final thought. The title comes from a running joke that Hickey used to tell, about how he was worried that when he was gone on sales trips his wife would be making it with the iceman. (Kind of its own version of the mailman…) In reality, though, Hickey’s wife is faithful to him, and the joke is pure projection: Hickey himself is a shameless philanderer on his trips. In the end, despite his claims to epiphany, Hickey ends as deluded as ever - he hasn’t even realized that he is the Iceman. I believe that O’Neill intended this by his choice of title.


I’m not sure if I like Eugene O’Neill or not. There were some good moments, but a lot of repetition and wordiness. So far, I would say that of the 20th Century American playwrights, I am inclined to prefer Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder. But perhaps I will like his other plays better. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. It also happened to be on my reading list already, so when my wife nominated it - and the club voted for it - I was thrilled. 

 The book itself is nothing like I could have expected, because it is rather unique. That does not mean it was disappointing. Quite the contrary: it was an outstanding book, very thoughtful, compelling to read, and fascinating in form. Our club approved. 


Several things make this book unusual. First, it is written more or less in the form of a screenplay, with scenes and dialogue and the exact typeface that screenplays are printed in. Second, much (although not all) of the book is written in the second person, present tense. So it is as if the central character isn’t merely Willis Wu, Generic Asian Man, but the reader. This is definitely unusual in any book, but particularly for a recent book, as this style seems to have enjoyed a brief popularity in the past - definitely in the past. 


The third thing is that the book tells a story, but it is framed in an unusual way. The screenplay takes place all in this one building in a Chinatown in, well, it could be any major city in the United States. (I tend to think Los Angeles, or maybe New York, but it truly could be anywhere.) The building is an SRO - Single Room Occupancy - a form of housing that was dramatically reduced in the 1950s and 60s as part of a push to eliminate the kinds of affordable housing that immigrants and minorities (and single people) tended to use. You know, part of that push to get undesirable people out of the way. And yes, this has been a contributing factor to our current homelessness crisis. 


So, within this building is the ur-Chinese Restaurant, and the rented rooms above. The residents aren’t living their own lives entirely, though. The whole thing is part of a police procedural (hence the screenplay) called Black and White, with the black male and white female cops performing their standard roles within a standard TV genre. And, as Wu argues, within the black/white dichotomy of American life. 


This means that people who don’t fit into the categories of “black” or “white” are in their own category of “otherness” - they are never “real” Americans in that sense, and have limited roles that they are expected to play. Rather than be the main characters, they have bit parts, roles such as “Generic Asian Man.” The pinnacle of success is to be “Kung Fu Guy,” still not a main character, but the most prestigious part an Asian man can play. 


The book isn’t particularly long, and Yu doesn’t waste time on long descriptions. However, with a minimum of words, he makes his scenes and characters come absolutely to life. I mean, you really feel you are there. He has such a great feel for the underlying realities - and the stereotypes whether benign(ish) or ugly - that he can put the reader face to face with a place or person or situation. 


The struggle for Willis Wu, and for the other characters, is to transcend the assigned roles, to find a humanity and a belonging in society that is denied to them by the culture. 


Asian-Americans do occupy a strange place in (white) American culture. Chinese laborers built the most difficult half of our Transcontinental Railroad, and have been part of America longer than my own family. And yet, they are still seen as foreign. The recent uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans because of a combination of Trump and Covid is just the most recent. While I think Yu’s story is primarily about my parents’ generation, my own generation has its weird prejudices. For example, it seems unthinkable for an Asian man to be the romantic lead - particularly if he is wooing a white woman. The reverse, of course, is “normal,” right? White Dude marries Asian woman - that’s the stereotypical interracial marriage of my generation. On the other hand, the roles have changed a bit. In the 1950s, Asians were largely relegated to menial work - just like other minorities under Jim Crow - even if highly educated. That changed over a generation - white Americans decided that Asians would be the “model minority.” Given the opportunity, Asian Americans embraced education and the “nerdy” professions they were now allowed (and expected) to fill. It’s a better role...but it’s still a role, not a main character. 


The thing is, while we whites now like to pretend to be shocked about anti-Asian sentiment, there is nothing more American than anti-Asian hate. Along with the Native American Genocide and Slavery, our history is built on the exploitation and oppression of Asians. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at our actual history. 


A couple years ago, I wrote a series of posts on immigration. Did you know what the first law the US passed restricting immigration was? That would be the Chinese Exclusion Act. But that wasn’t all, or even the first law directed at Asians. About three-quarters of the way through the book, Yu lists just a few of the racist laws. For example:


1859: Oregon’s constitution is revised: no “Chinaman” can own property in the state.


1879: California’s constitution is revised: ownership of land is limited to aliens of “the white race or of African descent.” 


Wait, what was that? Yes, in my home state of California, African Americans could own land...but Asians couldn’t. 


1886: Washington Territory bans property ownership by those “ineligible for citizenship” - meaning Asians. 


1890: The City of San Francisco prohibits Chinese people from living or working in the city….except in a specific area we now call “Chinatown.” A legally, literally defined ghetto. 


Oh, and this is how EVERY Chinatown in the United States came to be. It wasn’t a spontaneous community like you see now with various immigrant groups. Chinatowns were created by law - and Chinese Americans were forbidden to live or even work outside of them. 


(For more on the Chinese American experience in California, I highly recommend On Gold Mountain, by Lisa See. Ms. See tells the story of five generations of her family.) 


1892: Federal Law enacted requiring Chinese Americans to carry a permit with them at all times or be deported or imprisoned. Also forbade Chinese Americans from testifying in court. 


1920: Federal Law enacted that stated that if a white American woman married a man “ineligible for citizenship” - again Asians, as other ethnic groups could become citizens - she lost her US citizenship. 


1924: Federal Immigration law now completely prohibits all immigration from Asia. All. Of. It. 


Oh, and you think that was ancient history? Not so much. 


1943: The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed, finally, but the replacement isn’t much better. At least now Chinese Americans can become citizens. But they are still prohibited from owning property or businesses. Oh, and how many Chinese can immigrate? Only 105 per year. 


My grandparents were living in 1943, by the way. 


1965: Our current immigration laws were enacted. While they are deeply flawed, and are still based on racism, they are less racist than what came before. The point, however, is that the exclusion of Asian immigrants simply for being Asian didn’t end until after my parents were born. Eleven years before I was, as a matter of fact. This is not ancient history. People affected by Asian exclusion are living today. 


One more that I think needs to be mentioned. The book, in a bizarre yet effective “courtroom” scene near the end of the book, cites People v. Hall, a case from 1854, where the California Supreme Court ruled that Asians could not testify in court, because they were of the same inferior racial stock as Native Americans (and similar to Negros.) The practical effect in that case (and others) is that a white man could kill an Asian American man, woman, or child, and if there were no white witnesses to the murder, he would walk free without consequence. 


Oh, I also have to mention one more, about Japanese Americans this time. During World War Two, hundreds of thousands of innocent American men, women, and children were imprisoned in concentration camps, simply because they were of Japanese descent. It didn’t matter that they were US citizens either. (Also, a number of Chinese Americans were also imprisoned, because, well, they looked the same as Japanese…) These political prisoners were able to only take with them what they could carry. They lost farms, businesses, houses, furniture, whole lives they had built. And white people saw no problem with this. It wasn’t until the 1980s - a period of time I remember personally - that they got an apology and a pittance in compensation. 


This. Is. Not. Ancient. History. This is the America of my parents and grandparents. 


Understanding that makes it obvious that hate crimes against Asian Americans aren’t some aberration, but are part and parcel of American whiteness - this is who we have been, and in many ways still are. 


Let me dive in to a few quotes that stood out. Yu quotes author Bonnie Tsui at the beginning. 


If a film needed an exotic backdrop...Chinatown could be made to represent itself or any other Chinatown in the world. Even today, it stands in for the ambiguous Asian anywhere. 


I also loved this analysis of the Police Procedural - and its uses as a metaphor for how white America views “exotic” others. 


There’s a pattern, a form, a certain shape to it all. The idea that any problem, no matter how messy and blood-spattered, from EXT. STREET to INT. OFFICE or INT. CRIME LAB or INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, any blight or societal ill, any crime of hate or intolerance, can be wrapped into the template. The idea that there are clues, and the clues can be discovered and understood, at a reasonable pace, i.e., one major commercial break, with each act a new understanding of the problem. That they, our heroes, can get to the bottom of things, and in the end, it’s human nature (jealousy and treachery and, you know, murder). A strangely optimistic idea. A deeply ingrained hope that they, Black and White, will be able to face down that danger, get a handle on it. Downtown may be gritty and dark and full of evil but on some level an unspoken belief, a faith that we live in a manageable world with its own episodic rules and conventions.

Life takes place one hour at a time.

Clues present themselves in order, one at a time.

Two investigators, properly paired, can solve any mystery. 

And there’s just something about Asians - their faces, their skin color - it just automatically takes you out of this reality. 


In a flashback middle of the book, Yu also describes how Willis’ parents ended up in Chinatown, despite being reasonably well off for Asian immigrants. 


But despite her prayers, people do not want to sell Dorothy and Wu a house. And that’s okay, because they can’t afford one. But people also do not want to rent them an apartment. Which would also be understandable, as Dorothy and Wu have a meager income, except that their income isn’t the reason no one will rent to them. The reason no one will rent to them is the color of their skin, and although technically at this point in the story of America this reason for not renting to someone is illegal, the reality is, no one cares. The minor god of immigration has gotten Dorothy this far, but the real estate spirits have failed her. She and Wu rent in the only place they can go, which has the benefit of being a place they can afford. The Chinatown SRO. 


I think this makes it possible to date when the book is set. This post-civil-rights-act situation means probably mid-1960s, making Willis a late Boomer - and the experiences that Yu describes very much what I recognize as being that of my parents’ generation. Although, to be honest, unofficial racial descrimination in housing is very much still going on. Not as much against Asians, at least in California (hello, “model minority”), but absolutely against African Americans and Hispanics. 


As the book unfolds the story, it has a number of really gut-wrenching moments, for unexpected reasons. Here is one we talked about in our club at length. Many of us have children who are growing into adults and some leaving the nest. 


It’s a montage of first moments, all of the major and minor milestones: first step, first word, first time sleeping through the night. There are a few years in a family when, if everything goes right, the parents aren’t alone anymore, they’ve been raising their own companion, the kid who’s going to make them less alone in the world and for those years they are less alone. It’s a blur-dense, raucous, exhausting-feelings and thoughts all jumbled together into days and semesters, routines and first times, rolling along, rambling along, summer nights with all the windows open, lying on top of the covers, and darkening autumn mornings when no one wants to get out of bed, getting ready, getting better at things, wins and losses and days when it doesn’t go anyone’s way at all, and then, just as chaos begins to take some kind of shape, present itself not as a random series of emergencies and things you could have done better, the calendar, the months and years and year after year, stacked up in a messy pile starts to make sense, the sweetness of it all, right at that moment, the first times start turning into last times, as in, last first day of school, last time he crawls into bed with us, last time you’ll all sleep together like this, the three of you. There are a few years when you make almost all of your important memories. And then you spend the next few decades reliving them. 


Good god, I swear I am going to bawl. In a book of humor and thoughtful examination of prejudice, he sticks that in?? And it’s so good and so awful and so true. With my youngest age 10 going on 17, and my eldest graduating from high school, we have had too many “lasts” recently, with more to come. I hope I don’t stop making important memories, though. 


Later in the book, Willis manages to fall in love with and marry (and later divorce) a biracial woman, who has managed to go beyond being Generic Asian Woman. To become, well, Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One. 


“I’m not white.”

“White-ish. Close enough.”

“Yeah. That’s why I play Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One.”

“You may have a point. So what . . . are you?”

“What am I? Nice, Willis.”

“You know what I mean. Lee can be, you know, like Sara Lee, or General Lee. But it’s actually, like, Lee. As in, Lee?”

“Lee, as in my paternal grandfather was from Taichung. He moved to the States and lived with us after my grandmother died.”

“You’re a quarter Taiwanese?”

“If you want to quantify it that way.”

“Wow. Just-wow.”

“What did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe you were part Latina? Or maybe just came back from Hawaii and had a nice tan? Do you speak?”

E-hiau kong Tai-oan-oe.

“From your accent I can tell you speak better than I do.”

“Do you need a moment?”

“This is very confusing for me.”

“If you think it is confusing for you, imagine how I feel.”

“Seems like it’s worked out pretty well for you.”

“I’m sure it seems that way.”

“You’re like a magical creature. A chameleon.”

“Able to pass in any situation as may be required,” she says. “I get it all. Brazillian, Filipina, Mediterranean, Eurasian. Or just a really tan White girl with exotic-looking eyes. Everywhere I go, people think I am one of them. They want to claim me for their tribe.”

“Must be amazing.”

“Yeah, I mean, I can be objectified by men of all races.”


 I should also mention the humorous aftermath of Willis getting “killed” in an episode of Black and White. With the character dead, he has to wait a few weeks before his face is forgotten, and he can become another Generic Asian Man








This is to confirm completion of the mandatory forty-five (45) day silent period following your most recent death event. You may now resume activities. Please note that by re-entering the system, you hereby acknowledge and agree to waive any and all status or other accumulated benefits you may have accrued pre-death. No continuity with any previous role will be recognized.



That’s one of a number of great in-jokes involving some combination of television action or video games. 


I also thought the scene where Willis and Karen break up was handled well. Karen gets her own show (literally and metaphorically), and Willis can have a bit part in it. And they can move out of Chinatown. But Karen notices that Willis finds it problematic. 


“I don’t get it. Isn’t this what you wanted? To move out of here?”

“Yeah. I mean, yeah.”

“But you wanted to be the one who did it. Is that it? You wanted to be the one who moved us out.”

“I’m really close to making it, Karen.”

“You’ve been close for a while.”

“You don’t believe in me.”

“I do believe in you. That’s why I don’t want to watch you do this anymore.” 


There’s a lot of reality there. I have seen it in plenty of divorce cases, where a husband has difficulty navigating a reality where his wife is the primary source of income. (That has actually been me the last year, thanks to the pandemic.) Our culture shames men for being supported by women, unfortunately. And Willis understands that. 


“It’s what’s best for our family. I have to stay for now. I’ve worked too hard to get it. If I get this, I can provide for you, for our kid.”

“We don’t need you to provide. I can provide. Didn’t you hear me say I have my own show? It can be our show together.”

“You just don’t get it. I don’t want to be on your show.”

“You resent me, For doing better-”


It’s a sad breakup, and it is impossible not to feel for Willis, who really does wish he could have his dreams. But deep down, he knows he can never be Kung Fu Guy. 


One final bit I wanted to quote comes from the courtroom scene. Willis is essentially “on trial” for his own disappearance from Chinatown. (It is implied he reconciles with Karen and moves to the suburbs. He is represented by Older Brother, the guy who could have been Kung Fu Guy, but ends up a lawyer instead. As part of his closing argument, he has this to say:


This is it. The root of it all. The real history of yellow people in America. Two hundred years of being perpetual foreigners. They zoned us, kept us roped off from everyone else. Trapped us inside. Cut us off from our families, our history. So we made it our own place. Chinatown. A place for self-preservation.

Give them what they feel is right, is safe. Make it fit their ideas of what is out there. Don’t threaten them. Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism. An invention, a reinvention, a stylization. Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see. 


As I mentioned, our club loved this book, and had a great discussion about it. I am leaving out a lot, obviously. Definitely give this book a shot.




This is a chance to plug a few other Asian American authors that I have enjoyed recently:


America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Filipino-American)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese-American)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Chinese-American)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Tawainese-American)

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian-American)


And, of course, one of my very favorite writers, Yiyun Li, whose use of language is breathtakingly gorgeous. I have read three of her books so far:


Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

The Vagrants

My Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life