To respond adequately to these six short plays, I'd need to see them performed. One was originally produced at the Ontological-Hysterical Theater in NTo respond adequately to these six short plays, I'd need to see them performed. One was originally produced at the Ontological-Hysterical Theater in New York, a venue I've gone to many times and which has taught me that what matters is less the words not he page than the way they're activated. As reading texts, Young Jean Lee's plays strike me as erratic, alternating between really sharp and funny engagement with contemporary problems of identity--especially as it revolves around race, culture and gender--and fairly turgid seeming post-modernist set pieces; she was in the PhD program in English at Berkeley and I found myself on more than a few occasions recoiling a bit from seminar speak. BUT....I can imagine ways of bringing the texts--more often than not written in the form of extended monologs--alive, so I'm giving the plays the benefit of the doubt with the four stars. And several of them--especially Church and the title play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven--worked well for me as it is. Songs is a hilarious and deadly serious set of riffs on the tensions between Korean, Korean American and "white"--Lee's clearly aware of the flattening entailed in the term--cultural stereotypes.
In a critical essay following the plays, Jeffrey Jones, not really one of my favorite figures in downtown NY theater, writes that Lee sets out to write the "worst" plays she can imagine as a way of freeing herself from internal censorship, of letting herself write the things that would otherwise be taboo. That does account for some of the donnas--the play written around a gaggle of utterly and intentionally unhistorical romantic poets (Wordsworth, Byron, etc.) But Jones seems to think that's a recent discovery--it's a bit as if he's never heard of Brecht, which of course he has. Yes, Lee is destabilizing our notions of well made plays with uplifting endings and consistent characters; yes, she wants to force us to respond in unconventional ways. But that's been a main current of theater for fifty years. It's not fair to blame Jones' special pleading on Lee, but it does make me worry a bit more about the seminar speak element--the notion that the complexity of identity and the untrustworthiness of aesthetic convention is a late 20th or early 21st century discovery. Still, I'd have to see the plays produced to be confident of my response.
For now, I'll highly recommend the title play, and withhold recommendations on the larger body of her work....more
Presented as a novella, The Vanishing Point of Desire has much more in common with the texture, thematic structure and language of lyric poetry. To bePresented as a novella, The Vanishing Point of Desire has much more in common with the texture, thematic structure and language of lyric poetry. To be more specific, with the strain of erotic poetry that runs from the Renaissance (Marvell, Donne) to Adrienne Rich's 21 Love Poems, part of the tradition that Octavio Paz wrote about so beautifully in The Double Flame. At moments, Nao is excruciatingly precise about the experience of obsession: the constant replaying of moments, the blurring of self and other, the sense of a descent into a realm without social moorings, one in which the spiritual and the carnal are impossible to disentangle, even if the lovers wanted to, which they don't. Nao images that in terms of the tension between The House of Intimacy and The Gentleman Time--she doesn't often recur to abstractions like that, but those are useful. The relationship at the center is between two women, but that's nearly beside the point (in a way that isn't true of Rich's great cycle which takes the social/political meanings of lesbian experience as a crucial part of the experience.) This is more like Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. Generally, I prefer a bit more reference to the external world, but The Vanishing Point does what it sets out to do very well. ...more
In the prose poem "Federal Scene," Bolina's persona attempts to "become convinced our municipal banter played a critical part in the federal narrativeIn the prose poem "Federal Scene," Bolina's persona attempts to "become convinced our municipal banter played a critical part in the federal narrative." It's a complex line, one that reflects both the strengths and limitations of his second collection. Many of the poems fixate on the banter, the internal and external noise that fills consciousness as it winds its way through a social scene that's both deeply disquieting and drained of obvious political significance. Bolina's characters know something's wrong, that their relationships and psyches are enmeshed in "federal narratives" that for the most part keep the pain and suffering of others out of sight. What keeps Phantom Camera from descending into the sort of introspective mush that fills way too many poetry magazines--there's clearly another sort of mush that rails against the injustices without making the personal connections--is Bolina's ability to locate the moments and images where the incoherence reveals itself for what it is. My favorite poems include "Other Anthems" and "The Last National," but there are quite a few that reward careful attention: "Mine Is the First Rodeo, Mine Is the Last Accolade," "Make Believe," "Ultrasonic," "Portrait of the Self," "Aviary," "In Another Version of the Afterlife." ...more
An exploration of contingencies, fragments, the disconnections of contemporary life. Xu's voice isn't quite like any other I've encountered, mirroringAn exploration of contingencies, fragments, the disconnections of contemporary life. Xu's voice isn't quite like any other I've encountered, mirroring the thematic center of her work. It's deceptively straightforward, rarely straying far from a seemingly direct syntax or vocabulary. What's interesting is the way the details of the sentences and fragments are consistently surprising, sort of like images from the edge of a dream. It's very much a 21st century vision of people reaching for one another without making contact they trust. I would have liked more of the bigger social picture, but that's clearly not what Xu's interested in, except by indirection. The best poems include "Here in This New Place Is Your Memory," "If You Think That Living Is a Little Bit Sad," "The Totally Number of Things that Matter Is On the Rise," "Things Other People are Good At" (which exemplifies her quiet humor), and my favorite, because it comes closest to making the personal-social connection, "Poem for Inappropriate Caring."...more
Nicely done memoir about growing up Korean American. There's nothing that jumps out of the book; the picture of immigrant life will be generally familNicely done memoir about growing up Korean American. There's nothing that jumps out of the book; the picture of immigrant life will be generally familiar to anyone who's done much reading in the area, and the writing's clean but not particularly memorable. There are some laugh-aloud humorous moments, mostly involving Choi's exasperation with her mother. Lots of the details about growing up in the 80s and 90s apply equally well to teens of pretty much any ethnic group, but the report on the family trips to Seoul make it very much Korean. Three stars plus....more
Near the end of poet Linh Dinh's first novel, the narrator observes that a billboard accurately reflecting the reality of contemporary Saigon would loNear the end of poet Linh Dinh's first novel, the narrator observes that a billboard accurately reflecting the reality of contemporary Saigon would look like a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. That's a useful clue to the LD's approach to the complex and contradictory realities of Vietnamese experience 35 years after the end of the American phase of the Vietnam War. One of the major contributions of the novel is to provide a South Vietnamese perspective on the experiences of a range of characters before, during and after the War. Not surprisingly, LD, who has grown up and lives in the U.S., is particularly concerned with the presence of America in the Vietnamese world view. One of the central stories concerns a mother obsessed with having her daughter marry a Viet Kieu (Vietnemese who have grown up elsewhere returning to the homeland), so she can escape Saigon. The longest section of the novel, however, focuses on the mother's childhood, marriage to a South Vietnamese officer, and subsequent re-marriage to a Chinese man in the wake of the North Vietnamese victory. The least effective piece of the novel--though conceptually necessary--involves an American teaching English in Vietnam today. (He's pretty much a caricature, though all the pieces are recognizable enough.)
As social document, Love Like Hate is fascinating. It breaks down the myths of post-war reconciliation without descending into ideological truisms. It does a good job contrasting contemporary Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I don't have enough points of reference to judge the accuracy of the characterizations but it feels real.
There are, however, problems, mostly stemming from Linh Dinh's vocation as a poet. The love stories fairly often feel cliched, and the insertion of mini-essays into the narrative often disrupts the flow. He does a great job capturing the power of global consumerism, but the various pieces of the story feel a bit randomly structured. Which takes me back to the Bosch image at the start of the review. Until I encountered it, my inner rater was prepared to give this three stars--good pieces more than a good book. Looking at it through Bosch's eyes, I'll bump it up....more
Like Cathy Park Hong's previous book, Dance Dance Revolution, Engine Empire imagines her way into the human meanings of our globalized techno-dystopicLike Cathy Park Hong's previous book, Dance Dance Revolution, Engine Empire imagines her way into the human meanings of our globalized techno-dystopic present. EE is divided into three sections, each with a distinctive set of voices. THe first section reimagines the history of the American frontier; the second a contemporary Chinese industrial city; the third a future/present world inundated by "smart snow," modeled on today's "cloud." The final poem, "Fable of the Last Untouched Town," stands outside the triptych, presening Park Hong as a Dantesque visionary ruminating on three versions of Hell. (If there's any sense of working through our sins or attaining paradise, it's heavily laden with irony.)
I had a lot of trouble finding the flow in the first section; there's a collective "we" in the voice that I found difficult to locate. I respect Park Hong's work enough to suspect that there's something here I'm missing. (If it's simply the American imperial consciousness, then the section feels uncharacteristically flat.) The second and third sections work beautifully. The Shangdu section reminds me of recent Chinese cinema--24 City; Last Train Home--bringing The Grapes of Wrath into the globalized present. I liked the final section even better, maybe because it echoes my suspicions that the increased access to information we've been experiencing for several decades is destroying (or at the very least challenging) our ability to connect with our environment, other people and ultimately ourselves.
This is an easier book than Dance Dance Revolution, which requires a willingness to deal with a Joycean density of language. It's still very demanding, but it's worth it. Cathy Park Hong has established herself as one of the very best contemporary poets. I'm going to circle back and read her first book soon, and I'll read anything she writes from her on out....more
Writing in a lyrical collective voice--the center of the style is with the "we" rather than the "I" or the "she"--Otsuka traces the history of JapanesWriting in a lyrical collective voice--the center of the style is with the "we" rather than the "I" or the "she"--Otsuka traces the history of Japanese American women from the picture brides to the internment era. There are many moving meditative passages and I'm not discouraging anyone interested in the subject from reading it, but ultimately the novel doesn't quite work for me. In her powerful first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka brings the shared experience of internment alive through absolutely individual characters; along wit Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats, it's my favorite contemporary Japanese-American novel. Here, Otsuka sets herself the very difficult task of making the women feel individual while foregrounding the collective stylistically. It's an experiment worth making, but it doesn't quite work for me....more
Fairly straight-forward "roots" story in which a young Vietnamese American (born in South Carolina shortly after the war) returns to Vietnam, somewhatFairly straight-forward "roots" story in which a young Vietnamese American (born in South Carolina shortly after the war) returns to Vietnam, somewhat reluctantly and uncovers his family's tangled history. In some ways it's a fairly staightforward immigrant story enlivened by an effective graphic novel presentation. Some interesting details, especially the portrait of middle class Vietnamese life during the war in Vungtau, an area which was spared direct combat, highly atypical. Good to have the book as an introduction to this aspect of the War's legacy....more