Meredith Allen, Rogers Beach, tweety, 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Flat Files.
If Leo Tolstoy moved to San Francisco, worked at a tech startup, and immersed himself in the work of Raymond Carver, then The Dead Do Not Improve might just be the novel he would write. Jay Caspian Kang’s debut takes a wide-eyed, wild ride through the Bay Area underworld, featuring militant surfers, harpy-like hippies, and a plot that careers down a surprisingly emotional path. I caught up with Jay via email in the midst of a cross-country move.
Jack Palmer If The Dead Do Not Improve has a central theme, it seems like it could be authenticity. This seems particularly apparent in the scene where Philip Kim, the book’s protagonist, is taken by his father to a Bob Dylan concert “instead of simply beating the hip-hop out of [him].” When later he is told by a professor that his father couldn’t possibly feel Dylan, Kim feels violently angry. The book is populated by other fakers—surfers, gang members, even the boyfriend who barely rides his scooter. Why is authenticity such an important theme? What is so upsetting about the idea that an understanding or experience being unavailable to his father that so upsets Kim?
Jay Caspian Kang Philip feels constantly excluded from his American generation’s dialogue. His anger at his music professor comes from his realization that his experiences with his father—even if they are steeped in Americana—will always be devalued by white people who would rather see Philip’s story along more traditional immigrant lines. The professor would rather have Philip talk about his Tiger mom and how she didn’t let him listen to Dylan because it wasn’t piano practice or whatever. He can only believe those sorts of expected things about Philip and his connection with his father. That’s a painful experience for someone who already feels insecure about his identity, and it becomes particularly infuriating when someone like the professor can hide behind an “appreciation for other cultures.”
JP Following from Dylan, how did music, and in particular hip-hop, influence your novel? Where did the idea for the fictional figure of Ronizm originate? Was there other music you listened to for inspiration or reference while writing the novel?
JCK I grew up listening to hip-hop in North Carolina. A lot of this novel was about that weird space where you find yourself identifying with a story that is very clearly not your story. And how that might be the only option when the only story you can find that represents you is The Joy Luck Club.
JP In The Dead Do Not Improve, Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui plays a key role. In the novel’s comparisons between that shooting and Columbine, it is noted that the Columbine protagonists were extensively psychoanalyzed by the media, whereas Cho is cast easily into the stereotyped role of a crazy Korean immigrant. Are there ways in which being an Asian-American writer involves this too-easy typecasting? Were you conscious about writing a story that did not fit too easily into the genre of Asian American fiction?
JCK I really didn’t think much about those sorts of identity questions when I was writing the book. I just wanted Philip to feel alive in a way that felt honest to my own experience. The Asian-American kids I know don’t really think too much about the cultural peculiarities of their immigrant upbringings. They don’t talk about weird foods and prayer rituals and dead great grandfathers and the war.
Most Asian-American fiction writers today don’t write like Pearl Buck, either.
I did want to write about Cho Seung-Hui and the seismic impact Virginia Tech had on Korean-American kids. If I had to pick a central theme, I’d probably say the book is more about Cho than it is about authenticity or identity politics or whatever else.
JP Phillip Kim works at the fictional getoverit.com, a web service that helps guys get over bad break-ups, and there are occasional mocking references to the San Francisco tech scene. How did you approach incorporating social media into the novel? As the Internet is so rapidly changing, is there a danger of that type of satire quickly becoming out of date?
JCK Sure. I remember a teacher of mine once saying that there should be nothing in a novel that might not be understood by a reader in 100 years. But when you read Capote or Salinger or whoever else, there are references that you don’t quite understand. As long as those things are embedded into the sentence in a nice way, I don’t think the effect is as jarring as it might seem. Also, how do you set something in 2010 without mentioning social media?
JP The Dead Do Not Improve is funny, often irreverent, and ultimately hard to categorize. Two scenes in particular—Philip Kim remembering his mother’s tendency to get lost, and his flashback to a day spent playing on a swing with some Mexican kids—are jarring in their tenderness. Paired with what can only be described as a happy ending, the novel is a little like a cactus: spiny on the outside, but squishy at its core. Are you a sentimentalist at heart?
JCK I plead the fifth. Philip is as sentimental as they come, though. Like, I think he’d cry at the end of pretty much every movie.
JP For a crime novel set in San Francisco, Tolstoy seems like a somewhat odd influence, yet he seems to be the most referenced novelist in The Dead Do Not Improve. What attracts you to Tolstoy?
JKC He writes the best love stories, doesn’t he? There’s a way he builds out all the peculiarities and insecurities and bluster of a relationship that’s unlike anything else. So much of this novel is about the love between Philip and Ellen, and because Philip’s the sort of guy who can only really experience life through references, he can’t really think about what is happening to him without thinking about the writer who taught him the most about love.
Jack Palmer is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.
For more on Jay Caspian Kang, follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.