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The Dead Do Not Improve: A Novel Hardcover – August 7, 2012
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Q&A with Eleanor Henderson and Jay Caspian Kang
Q: Well, first—forgive me—a crafty question. I’m impressed by the way The Dead Do Not Improve balances Phil’s point of view in the first person and Finch’s point of view in the third person—a kind of architectonic feat, to use John Gardner’s term. That’s hard to pull off without making a reader lazy-eyed. How did that structure announce itself in the writing of the book?
A: Philip’s voice came to me first. I’ve always wanted to write from the perspective an overly sentimental dude who can’t quite get himself to commit to one specific broadcasted emotion. Finch’s sections came to me a bit later. I wanted to put together a third-person voice that could hold a lot of reflections about love. The plot of the book admittedly sounds a bit crazy, but I was really trying to write a love story, with a lot of asides and reflections on a decaying relationship.
Q: I’m also impressed by the up-to-the-minuteness of the story. Craigslist, Quizno’s, Obama—the novel feels like it was written last week. But there’s also an otherworldliness to this San Francisco, as though it’s actually a few absurd steps ahead of us—Personal Break-Up Coaches, the Being Abundance Cafeteria. I was reminded of what Gary Shteyngart said about the difficulty of writing about the present day, because the world is moving too quickly to capture. Was that a challenge for you? Did you have to write in a mad dash to stay ahead of your own material?
A: Quizno’s will outlive us all! People will always want toasted subs with too much Italian dressing. As for the up-to-dateness of the book, I really did want it to read like it had been written last week. The book deals a lot with Internet culture and what happens when we piece ourselves out to social media sites, chat clients, and the never-ending churn of website content. I thought the book would have to feel very current to achieve that effect.
As long as I could embed that current culture in sentences that I liked, I didn’t really see the newness as an artistic compromise. I hope we’re all over trying to write novels that will outlast even Quizno’s.
Q: You’ve lived in a lot of places—Seoul, Boston, North Carolina, now L.A. How did living in such diverse locales influence the world you’ve presented in The Dead Do Not Improve, and why did you choose to set your first novel in San Francisco?
A: I lived in San Francisco for four years and really loved it. Every recognizable public space in that city has this amplified energy about it, and it was always fun, as a writer, to try to capture those spaces. The city also has been the setting for a lot of hard-scrabble detective books. I love those old Raymond Chandler books (not to mention the Dirty Harry movies) and wanted their influence to hang over this novel.
Q: If you were stranded in a Laundromat and, like Phil, couldn’t find an unlocked Wi-Fi signal, what three books would you hope to have with you?
A: I sometimes dream about living in an apartment just out of Wi-Fi range. Right now, I’m subletting my friend’s place in New York and can’t figure out how to connect to his Wi-Fi.
There’s one open network I can access if I sit in one corner and angle my body a specific way. I was hoping this would keep me away from the Internet, but I’m weak . . .
But if I was in a Laundromat and I had enough dirty clothes to justify bringing three books, I’d bring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, which I try to read a couple times a year.
“Loopy, hilarious, neo-noir novel… an extremely smart, funny debut, with moments of haunting beauty.” –Boston Globe
“Jay Caspian Kang's debut novel demands to be accepted on its own terms…Richly observed…it uses (and sometimes abuses) the genre's conventions to present a metafictional mash-up of hip-hop, hipsters, hippies and more that marks Philip Kim as an antihero for our time and flags Jay Caspian Kang as an author worth watching.” –Los Angeles Times
“The anticipated debut of Grantland editor Jay Caspian Kang, The Dead Do Not Improve, is a modern, satirical detective story… Kang's writing is funny, stylish and definitely of the moment.” –Time Out New York, #1 Critics Pick
“The fusion of a whodunit plot and a starving artist protagonist piqued our interest. Plus, Jay Caspian Kang's voice is refreshing. He presents grad-school insights in a sharp, accessible, and often humorous way.” –Huffington Post
"The writing in Dead has more in common with books like Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase than it does with Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Mr. Kang finds it frustrating that some readers expect a novel by an Asian-American writer to focus on tiger moms, poverty or the aftermath of war. 'I just hope the people who want that sort of thing hate this book,' he says." –Wall Street Journal Asia
“A Pynchon-esque menagerie of California surfers, cops, thugs and dot-com workers converge in a comic anti-noir…Kang sends up the Bay Area's moralizing atmosphere along with its inherent weirdness, but he also parlays the setup into some surprisingly affecting observations: Philip’s budding relationship with a gorgeous neighbor sparks incisive passages on San Francisco’s tense mix of races and cultures, and he has plenty of insights on hip-hop, social media and Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech mass murderer… Smart, funny and eager to fly its freak flag.” Kirkus
“MFA grad Phillip Kim unwittingly becomes embroiled in a violent scheme that leads him to a bizarre San Francisco subculture.” –Entertainment Weekly
“The portrait of a city and its denizens so otherworldly strange is vivid, searing, and sometimes hilarious.” —Booklist
“The Dead Do Not Improve is basically the best thing I've read in a very, very long time. It’s seriously hilarious, heartbreakingly sentimental, and distressingly perceptive. If Joseph Heller and Raymond Chandler had once battled over who could write more like Tolstoy, then maybe there’d be something with which to compare this magnificent book.”
—RIVKA GALCHEN, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
“Self-hating-hipsters’ bible, hilarious decoding of our inanities and poses, joyful and romantic misanthropy, Proustian mining of emotion and thought in prose as fast and jumpy as thinking out loud, and these amazing insights on every page, and really funny, twisted, and unforgettable characters, infrarealist criminals and cops and overall weirdness, great surfing scenes, and Jay Caspian Kang’s own San Francisco, gifted to us, all of it, in this jaw-droppingly brilliant, original, and ‘totally mental’ novel. If I were young, I’d want to be this voice—even if it got me beat up a lot, which it would; it would bring me love and glory, too. The Dead Do Not Improve is the most thrilling novel I’ve read in ages.”
—FRANCISCO GOLDMAN, author of Say Her Name
“Jay Caspian Kang writes like he has a gun to his head and his middle finger on the pulse of our target-marketed age. The Dead Do Not Improve treats us to his antisocial networking sensibility and a hilariously urgent voice with one hell of a story to tell. This is some killer shit.”
—RYAN BOUDINOT, author of Blueprints of the Afterlife
“The Dead Do Not Improve is the most authentic novel of 2k12. Jay Caspian Kang has told a story that captures the lives of twenty-somethings as they wallow in the spaces between real life and the Internet, and, along the way, created an accurate, hilarious portrait of boredom and self-pity in 'the zeitgeist.'”
—Carles, HIPSTER RUNOFF
“That Kang has found a way to invigorate a subject matter as overburdened as the Internet’s impact on identity and relationships would be enough to recommend The Dead Do Not Improve. But in the complex, well-drawn, and empathetic Philip, he has also crafted a protagonist that elevates this uneven book from the level of a “novel of ideas” to a rewarding and promising debut.” –The Oxford American
“Tragically hilarious and darkly uplifting…The sum total of all these contradictions is a book that is so light-heartedly hilarious and crushingly dark that you will be unable to put it down…Kang is undoubtedly the author to watch in the years following this masterful debut.” –CrimeSpree Magazine
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Top customer reviews
Phillip Kim is a disaffected wanna-be writer who scams his way through his job at an internet support site for men going through tough break-ups. One night, his odd neighbor, aging hippie Dolores Stone (whom he refers to as "The Baby Molester") is killed when she is shot through the window of her apartment. Phillip, who was sleeping during the murder, only finds out about it the next day when Googling himself, and discovers that Dolores was a far more complex person than he even knew. Somehow, Phillip becomes a suspect in Dolores' death (and a subsequent murder) and also a target in an elaborate scheme. He's being pursued by surfing hippie cop Siddhartha "Keanu" Finch (who has more than enough problems of his own) and his partner, Jim Kim, who both run into their own obstacles along the way. And while all of this is happening, Phillip finds himself falling in love.
If the description of this book sounds disjointed and confusing, it's because it doesn't quite follow a linear literary pattern. Jay Caspian Kang has created a vivid cast of complex characters, most of whom aren't what you think they are at first glance, and he takes all of them on a roller coaster ride of an adventure. This book is a little like something by David Foster Wallace (minus the footnotes) with even a little Dave Eggers thrown in for good measure. And while the multiple narrators, pop culture references, surfing lingo, and meditations on ethnic stereotypes may derail the story from time to time, there are flashes of brilliance in this story. There's so much going on at the same time, I found myself utterly confused, but I know that when the book ended, I felt like I had read something completely unexpected.
It's equal parts fun novel, author's insights, social commentary, rich characters, and engaging story.
I found it very helpful to know going in that Kang's main character is a surrogate for himself in many ways (Korean-american writer), and that he would be using this in an examination of the 2007 VA Tech shooting (by a Korean-american writing student), especially in regards to issues of race and identity. Kang has written some good stuff about race before - you should go look up his articles about Jeremy Lin's big splash in the NBA ("Linsanity") on Grantland, where Kang writes.
here, I found it for you:
Don't take that as if it's laid on too heavily, though. This book isn't an Asian Novel or whatever that means. It's not a surfing story either, and there's more of that in it. I really found this to be a good read that kept me engaged but also has some depth to it intellectually if you are looking out for it.
Also, according to the opinion of some non-scientific person quoted in a NYT article this year, about 1/3 of online book reviews are false. Thant's kind of depressing, but it at least motivated this one.
L/C Ratio: 70/30
(This means I estimate the author devoted 70% of his effort to creating a literary work of art and 30% of his effort to creating a commercial bestseller.)
40% - Analysis of modern American culture
20% - Detective mystery
15% - Sex
15% - San Francisco
10% - Literature
In his debut novel, Kang proves himself to be a brilliant writer with mediocre storytelling skills.
He switches from hilarity to poignancy like a master, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment of all is that he finds a fresh way to satirize hipsters. But when Kang tries to fold his vibrant characters into a murder mystery, everything falls apart. It almost feels as if he was determined to write a detective novel without employing any traditional elements of a crime story - you know, things like clues, suspects, or an actual puzzle to solve. Instead, Kang gives us a convoluted and underwhelming conspiracy.
The riffs and tangents in The Dead Do Not Improve are smart and daring, but they also chop up the already problematic plot, which ultimately dampens their impact.
Love and cities are always inextricably entwined. There's no restaurant or corner store or run-down dive in any city that doesn't double as a monument for a lost love. I think that's why we always stop and stare whenever we come across a girl crying in public. We sense the imprint of a memory being pressed onto the sidewalk, onto the building contours, onto the names of the streets.