Liberal arts college-educated Philip Kim of Jay Caspian Kang’s debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve is a Gen X, tight-jeans-wearing, earlier wave gentrifier of the Mission District in San Francisco -- apparently now on its “seventh wave” -- weaned on the Simpsons, nineties hip hop, nachos from Taqueria Cancun, artisan coffee from Valencia Street shops with one-noun names, and artfully poured drinks from obscure Guerreo Street bars. You can’t help but feel that it reads like a hipster’s guide to San Francisco. Many of his characters are young, cool, Silicon Valley, or artistic types who are foodies, plugged into social media, and who understand Thunder Cats references. As much as Kang scorns them, you can tell he is also one of them. His older characters also wax poetic about the good old days with such alacrity that you feel like a voyeuristic gentrifier yourself if you take just one step down Valencia Street.
If you’re not familiar with the City then Kang’s constant name-dropping may seem gratuitous, and the snide asides about gentrification of the Mission won’t be interesting. But for a reader in the know, it adds richness to the story. The City isn’t merely a backdrop, it is Kang’s muse. And it is San Francisco’s particular intersection of quirk, kink, and sub-cultures that gives Kang full range to wind you through a series of convoluted plot twists which involve a vegan cult restaurant, a bar named to honor a conspiracy theorist, belligerent Ocean Beach surfers, and the Porn Palace. This can all be found within one city’s jurisdiction. This is real folks. Look it up.
The book starts off with the murder of Philip’s neighbor. Philip’s accidental investigation of the murder leads him to believe both he and his neighbor are targets of a Latino gang who want to eliminate the incoming gentrifiers. Of course, Philip’s self-obsession might be to blame for this far-fetched theory (would gangsters really care about a bunch of Vespa riding gringos?), but this doesn’t stop him from going into hiding in a seedy motel after he is attacked by a group of masked men. He is shortly joined there by his neighbor, whom he calls Performance Fleece, a waspy condo-dwelling gentrifier who also fears for her life. In their motel room, the pair quickly form a bond based on alcohol, Philip’s fetishization of whiteness, Performance Fleece’s festishization of non-whiteness, and good-smelling bath products.
The Dead Do Not Improve vacillates between mystery novel, crime novel, and suspense novel, though the cliffhangers are somewhat compromised by the abrupt shifts in narration. The first person narration of Philip Kim is given over to a third person narration which follows detective Siddhartha “Sid” Finch, a native son of San Francisco. Finch investigates the murder of Philip’s neighbor along with his partner Detective Jim Kim. Sid Finch’s investigations lead him to a crazed Internet startup run by cyberpunks, and Jim Kim’s investigations lead him to Philip, whom he suspects of being a psychopath because of his Internet presence -- a fake Wikipedia and Facebook page -- in which he glorifies the Virginia Tech massacre by Korean American Cho Seung-Hui. This is the part of the book that gets really good.
Jay Caspian Kang
Both Jim and Philip talk about watching the unfolding news during the Virginia Tech shootings, and when it was revealed the shooter was Asian, both knew instinctively he was Korean. Jim says:
The Chinese aren’t creative enough, the Nips don’t have the balls or the specific brand of Korean crazy, which is really the same as Irish crazy, because both peoples come from small countries oppressed for hundreds of years by the assholes across the way. Both peoples grew up under the eye of the crown or the fucking emperor and learned to suppress everything, especially anger, until they no longer could distinguish what was what, and could walk around angry without recognizing anger as anger. And the prescription for whatever else was drinking … You new kids, man. You grow up thinking you’re white. But then when something happens that reminds you that you aren’t, you got no way to respond. You just stand there stuttering and holding your cock as the white world evacuates all of its well-meaning bullshit.
Admittedly, I don’t read much of what could be categorized as dick-lit, and the men in the novel are not overly sensitive, politically correct, or even tactful. But I did welcome Kang’s fresh voice and the insight into this particular brand of male. They can size up another man and determine whether their muscles are gym muscles or labor muscles, posture like Ernest Hemingway, fight because their fathers encouraged them to fight, find common ground in the erotic powers of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” music video, and talk “TV, fantasy football, breasts” ... though I could have lived without the terms “faggy” or “pussy” used in derogatory ways.
Kang sometimes indulges in writing that is a little too sentimental, and the ending is rushed and a little far-fetched. But his clever humor and unfiltered male shop talk make this book very enjoyable. Ultimately, what’s most fascinating about the novel is Kang’s contemplation of Korean American masculinity, males navigating through the world of males, and some earnest consideration of our allegedly post-racist world, especially among the liberal and educated classes.
Jenny Yap is a lecturer in the English Department at California State University, East Bay. For you '90s kids, see if you can find the obscure Lisa Loeb reference in Kang’s book.