I will read anything. The phone book, the back of a cereal box, those creepy proselytizing pamphlets you find at bus stops, it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s boring I will give (almost) any printed word a whirlHowever, it frustrates me when I expect something to be a savory, sumptuous read and it doesn’t deliver what I want. This is how I felt after reading Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Dead Do Not Improve”. Kang writes for Grantland, and I really enjoy his essays – they’re incisive, thoughtful, a little bit irreverent, all around pretty dope. So I was cised to get his book and support another writer of color, just to see what he had to offer. And while he has a unique voice and I love Kang’s non-fiction work, the novel left me craving more. Below are my lamentations:
I was confused – Let me clarify: I was more confused than I normally am. This was supposed to be a crime/murder novel with hipster leanings, set in San Francisco, but the whole time I could not figure out what was going on. Philip Kim, the main character, is the neighbor of an older woman who is mysteriously killed, and finds himself on the run because he think he might be next. Apparently upset somebody (?). The trouble is that it was hard to understand why anyone would want to kill Phillip (he’s not that popping or interesting enough to kill, IMO). It’s also not easy to follow all the people in the book and get a good grasp on who did what, and what their connection was to murder. There were also reflections on race/minority status (Philip is Korean), relationships, hip-hop culture, dating, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the liberal culture in San Francisco. The book switched between Phillip’s first person account of his life on the run, and the third person view of Siddharta Finch, the detective responsible solving the murder. Flipping between the two narrative styles was a bit jarring. By the time I got to the end of the book I didn’t really care if they found the killers or not, I just wanted the book TO TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED so my brain wouldn’t explode. It was just too much.
The characters got on my nerves – So, I mentioned Philip Kim, who falls for this chick Ellen who is supposed to be some east-coast fleece wearing elitist who recently gentrified his neighborhood. Ellen is on the run with Phillip because he somehow managed to get her mixed up in the murder situation and she has to flee with him. Phillip was annoyingly mopey, and so THIRSTY for this Ellen chick that I worried that she wasn’t really worth it. It felt like he worshiped her whiteness more than telling me what was so special about her – she was bor-ing. At least let her be fly! At least let her be interesting! He made her seem like some Vera Bradley wearing chick who liked to bounce from minority to minority, sampling men like an international buffet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I did dig Siddharta’s character. He loved his wife, he loved his job, he surfed – a standup guy. His partner Jim Kim was a hard ass, which is cool because he’s a detective and that’s what detectives are, firm in the buttockal region. Outside of those main characters there were miscellaneous miscreants, heavy-breasted hippie women, surfers, fat men, and homeless people. I can’t tell you exactly what all they were doing, but they were there doing something.
San Francisco seems ass – San Fran was a place that I always wanted to go: I imagined streets paved in Rice-A-Roni, super mellow inhabitants, great book shops. And then my homegirl went there and reported back – people are overliberal, it’s cold, there ain’t no black people. At least Kang seems to have gotten the liberal condescension right in “The Dead Do Not Improve.” Reading the book made me leery of ever booking my flight northwestward. I don’t think there would be any people that I could connect with in that city, with all its dot com millionaires and activists and granola types. The “anything goes” spirit of the city that comes across in this book as creepy and seedy. I guess I’m not as free-wheeling and laissez-faire as I want to believe *womp womp*.
So that’s it, those are my thoughts on “The Dead Do Not Improve”. Not my fave, but I can’t fault Jay Caspian Kang for not writing a book that I enjoyed – there very well may be some people who this story spoke to, it just wasn’t me. As a writer you can’t please everyone with your work.