I started this book expecting some sort of awesomely sad coming-of-age tale of an awesomely sad Asian kid battling with the paradox of being brought up Chinese in an American society, amidst American values, education, science, and medicine. There is this teeny-weeny section on race in which I and my expectations are perfectly described: “Think of using branding as a metaphor for racism in the commercial lens of American consumerism.” Asian-American has become the Apple brand of literature to me and I have the highest expectations of it.
The book starts slow and I lugged through extensive philosophy, minimal action and drama, poetry, and a bit of bitter humour as saving grace. The first, second, and third-person narratives seemed chronologically disjointed at first, but once I discovered a vague pattern, I knew what to expect. I kept reading it because I am a faithful lover who ignores the minuses in her partner, and also because there are these characters who, though made rare appearances, called out to me.
When I was done with 1/3rd of the book, it became unputdownable. I got into the grind of being fed philosophy at the cost of discovering a rare confessional literature that doesn’t employ the regular art of melodrama. It perhaps falls into place with the lives of everyday men. Damien is an artist who’s lost both his parents early in life. Like the lives of regular people, his life is not guided by a linear plot or a single purpose. Damien does the everyday things like stay up late and play solitaire, get drunk, swear like a maniac, and violate parking rules, and through Damien there is a strong chance you are going to develop some sort of perspective of why you lose your cool every now and then: relationships or the lack of thereof.
Damien is an everyday guy; he is so real that he got on my nerves just like any real, depressed, perhaps seemingly passionless guy would. He is always either drunk or hungover; he complains of being bored, which is perhaps a consequence of being perpetually inebriated, but what do I know having never drunk myself; and he is way too sleazy for me to ever think he can take a woman seriously as something more than a sex object, but his serious relationships suggest maybe he’s depressed and thinks of casual sex as a way out. All of this despite being a traveller, who in theory should be loaded with artistic inspiration and satisfaction.
It’s difficult to predict possible endings because the beginning is so random and it is difficult to imagine a theatrical climax. Sure, it’s a slow story that you might be tempted to quit reading every now and then, but it’s so thought-provoking that you would want to pick it up again if ever you gave up on it. The first part of this novel could pass off as a collection of incohesive essays or even as a memoir, even if fictionalised.
Having looked up Kent Evans, I was tempted to ask him how closely Damien represents him. But then I thought maybe we should be able to read something the author calls a novel without drawing parallels between him and the protagonist, even if he himself calls it autobiographical. It’s not the author’s life we should judge; it’s his work of art.
My favourite lines in the book: “I’m telling you this because in the end we only have each other. No matter how bad a writer is I try to encourage them. I will go to readings and buy books by authors whose work I can’t stand because we’re friends and I want to support them. In a way I’m really just a big fan of art in general. I support these people because someone has to. We’re all alone and underpaid. Major publications like the New York Times still pay 10 cents a word and haven’t changed their pay scale since the 70s. Random House buys more books than any other publisher, like over a hundred a year, but dumps its marketing funds into less than a dozen titles. The others have to make it on their own or become tax write-offs. This is what we’re up against, and we can spend our time tearing each other down or we can help life each other up. I prefer the latter.”
“That’s part of the problem with popular spoken word; it’s like genre writing. People buy it because they know what to expect, you only have to look at the author and you’ll have an idea what’s coming.”
“Poetry is the one genre in both music and writing where you can’t expect much of one. It’s a big loser: the agent loses money (if you by some miracle have one), the house loses money, stores lose money–even the fucking poet loses money–all in the name of what many, including Damien’s agent, believe is a dead or dying art.”