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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.
“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
Top Customer Reviews
* as some frustrated reviewers have suggested, it is a terribly disappointing failure as a mystery. Since the author himself couldn't seem to care less about the plot machinations, the reader ultimately can't either.
* so any defenders who retort that this book is intending to be some internalized evocation of conspiracy are forgetting that no conspiracy is ever so sloppy, threadbare, nor ultimately so uninteresting. Pynchon may not answer one question by the end of LOT 49, but we totally, unforgettably, get it.
* and whoever applies the four letters "NOIR" in any way to this book has no idea what noir is. (Hint: this book is not it.)
* what the book reveals itself to be after all is an intriguing, delirious, yet culturally expanding fantasia about the young male Korean American mind. But the stress must fall on "young." This is a post-undergrad male self-study that may be necessary for Kang's development as an important American voice -- but I do await Kang's next phase. A deeper investigation of what makes one character utterly different from the next will be crucial -- for as it stands in this book, every character ultimately sounded like the same overtly self-conscious narrator terrified of sounding, somehow, duped.
But I think Kang has it in him.
This is--in a strange way--my biggest problem with TDDNI, that I want to like it more than I do because Kang himself has an enjoyable voice reminiscent of David Wong/Jarson Pargin's narrator in John Dies at the End. But I just couldn't, just didn't. Here, perhaps, is why:
Slapped across the softcover version is a Boston Globe quote, "Loopy, Hilarious, Neo-Noir Novel". TDDNI definitely hits many of the noir notes: story kicked off by a murder, good guys who turn out to be bad guys, bad guys who turn out to be good guys, dames, damsels, twisted plots and lurking mystery. But the balance and pacing are all off, with the story heavily front-loaded with potential areas for exploration that eventually take a backseat to the protagonist's increasingly detailed diatribes and remembrances. I kept finding myself wondering why Kang was spending so many words on these passages when he could've been exploring the world he'd been setting up, and the only reasons I could come up with were either:
A) There was some great, less obvious meaning that the reader was meant to decipher. Considering how nihilistic the protagonist is at times and how TDDNI is also labeled "satirical" , this option worried me because perhaps the meaning was that there was no meaning or some such other wankery. Either way, it made the action drag when Kang should've been cashing in on the building momentum and subsequent climax.
B) It was just straight up self-indulgence that should've been edited away. The fact that Kang decided to make his protagonist a writer (ugh) didn't help alleviate this concern that his own axes to grind were finding their way into the story.
That said, had the resolutions of the major plot elements been clearer I think I could've lived with the frequent Big Voice departures at the end. But I kept asking what the hell just happened and had more than a few paragraph rereads that didn't result in any greater clarity. Many modern writers have started substituting confusion for complexity, but it doesn't work that way--if your reader is left wondering about the details of the seeming conspiracy that's at the center of your story, that's on the writer, not the reader. Ambiguity and uncertainty in a story are like the sweet buzz of inebriation--they're fine as things are building up, but if you wake up still drunk you're going to be an unhappy camper. Don't leave your reader with an ambiguity hangover when they finish your story.
On top of the pacing and resolution issues, I also had a personal distaste of the characterizations in TDDNI. They felt distinctively hipster-ish, hitting all the expected notes (including the self-aware commentary about hitting expected notes) and trawling the overfished ocean of pop culture references. While I'm pretty sure I'd like Kang, the same could not be said for his characters, who remind me of the cookie-cutter scene-chasing 20 and 30 somethings who are all trying to be "unique just like everybody else". I'm not saying that characters--even main characters--have to be likable in a story, but this cast was so similar that it felt like one sprawling extension of the same Bay Area hipster persona, as if I was watching a play with all the parts performed by the same actor who just couldn't resist letting his own personality leak into the individual roles.
Oh and because I don't know where to put this, let me just add that I'm getting really tired of the "here's some description words in place of a name" thing, e.g. Lionface, Advanced Creative Writer, Performance Fleece. I first saw this in Murakami and every time I've seen it since it feels like they're just aping him (it also seems to act as a green light for reviewers to say how Murakami-esque the writing is). Please, stop--there are other ways to describe characters whose names we don't (yet) know.
Kang, if you happen to read this somehow, let me say: Keep writing. Drop the pretension and self-awareness, and focus on showing us the fascinating bits rather than telling them (or worse, shoving them down our throats). I'll be looking forward to your next novel.
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.