The specter of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho looms over Jay Caspian Kang’s excellent first novel, The Dead Do Not Improve. One of Kang’s two protagonists, Philip Kim, says that because Cho was Asian—the main detail the media released about him after the shooting—a wall went up between him and the public at large. Unlike the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, most Americans made no attempt to understand Cho; they just condemned him, wrote him off as a crazy Asian.
I wonder if anyone will ever really understand [Cho] in the way they tried to understand Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. When the country saw two relatable kids walking through that cafeteria armed with Uzis, when they watched the videotapes of Dylan and Eric yelling about things their own kids probably yelled about, an explanation was demanded. With Cho Seung-Hui, his Koreanness/insanity was enough of an explanation, and so the talk eddied off. Nobody made an attempt to figure out what had possessed a twenty-three-year-old creative writing major, born in Korea, raised in the American suburbs, to suddenly open fire on his classmates.
And so here is my confession: as much as a person can understand a mass murderer, and despite my whiteness (which is vast), I understand Cho better than Klebold or Harris. Cho’s unforgivable rampage started in my old dorm at Virginia Tech, West Ambler Johnston. The freshman year I spent in West AJ was one of the most miserable of my life. I felt surrounded by jocks, frat boys, and bullies. I struggled to make new friends, to adapt with old ones. I majored in English, floundered in a creative writing class—maybe the same one Cho took—and was put in my place by bearded upperclassmen. (Their criticism was valid. Their tone…) I wrote a lot of angsty poems and angry rap lyrics; at times the tone and imagery of these pieces mirrored Cho’s violence, which I’m almost ashamed to admit. But instead of bringing these scenes to life/death, I quietly transferred from Tech halfway through my sophomore year.
High school—the scene of Klebold and Harris’s humiliation and retaliation—was a completely different story. I loved it, rarely felt picked on or subjected to cliques. By some fluke I—not an athlete, musician, or class president; just a dude—was voted Prom King, so, god forbid, had there been a Trenchcoat Mafia at T.C. Williams, it’s more likely I would have been a target than a recruit. In short, unlike with Cho, I have no idea how those guys felt.
The counter-argument in the room is this: Anyone who goes on a shooting spree is catshit crazy, an irredeemable monster, and there’s no point trying to understand them regardless of race, creed, or circumstance. But this isn’t about whether or not it’s possible; it’s about whether or not we try. I haveseen people try to understand Klebold and Harris in a way I haven’t seen with Cho—or, for that matter, James Holmes, though it’s still early. Google “orange haired shooter”—this is how we define Holmes. He is a crazy guy with orange hair, the way Cho was a crazy Asian, the way the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, was a crazy Muslim. We use any obvious surface difference to erect a barrier between ourselves and these people—if we even acknowledge their humanity—to declare them Other, so we can tell ourselves never in a million years, etc. When the truth is, we don’t know for sure.
Kim also says that as soon as he heard Cho was Asian, Kim (and possibly Kang) “knew he was going to be Korean. I’ve never talked to any Korean who didn’t know.” Why? Because
The Chinese aren’t creative enough, the Nips don’t have the balls or the specific brand of Korean crazy… [Koreans] grew up under the eye of… the emperor and learned to suppress everything, especially anger, until they no longer could distinguish what was what, and could walk around angry without recognizing anger as anger.
So while the public labels the shooter another crazy Asian, Kim pegs him (correctly, it turns out) as “Korean crazy.” The lesson: everyone is prejudiced. Describing an opponent in a middle school fight, Kim says, “Daunte, who, even back then, would have been described by even the most well intentioned of my friends as a ‘big black dude.’” For many of us, “big black dude” evokes a much more frightening image than “big white dude” or “big Asian dude.” We go out of our way to drop the word “black” into a story to raise the stakes—or, if we’re on the receiving end, we think or say, Oh shit. This doesn’t necessarily make us racist, but it does mean we reinforce negative stereotypes (black = scary), no matter how socially progressive or “well intentioned” we might be. Kim recounts an anecdote about driving to a rope swing when he was sixteen, and seeing
…a bunch of Mexican kids taking turns on the swing. Neither of us knew what to do. Were they black, we would have skulked back to the car. If they were white, we would’ve asked for a turn.
Black = scary; white = harmless; Mexican = a confusing middle ground. Kang uses these scenes and others, Cho and Kim and Kim (there’s also a detective named Jim Kim—the joke being that all Koreans are named Kim), to “deal with race in an as modern a sort of way, as honest as possible,” as he puts it in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. In the same interview, Kang says that he’s “always wanted to write an angry Asian character.” Well, one of the reasons Philip Kim is because everyone assumes he has a small dick. You might be a very well-intentioned person, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean you’re not nodding, thinking, Yeah, when it comes to dicks, black ones are tops, then white, Hispanic, and Asian. It’s science. Have you ever considered how maddening that preconception is for Asian men? To walk into a party and have half the room assume you’re hung like a kid?
Kang says in the WSJ interview (in response to “Was it difficult to take the anger and make it funny?”—a ridiculous question, anger being the funniest of all emotions) that his “No. 1 goal was to make [the book] funny.” For some reason it made me giggle instead of laugh (embarrassing), but The Dead Do Not Improve is the funniest book I’ve read since Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen (2012), which was the funniest book I’d read in years. Of his friend’s apartment, Philip Kim says, “A menorah, mottled, oxidized green, stood in the only window. Cigarette butts had long since replaced the candles. There was a futon, I guess.” (I guess.) Of the opposite sex, Kim says, “Is there anything more attractive to an unsettled man than a woman who silently tolerates it all?” (No.) Meanwhile, Kang’s other protagonist, the no-bullshit surfer-detective Sid Finch
…still put his faith in the following equation: “I, Siddartha Finch, love The Simpsons. Everything I find funny can be found somewhere in the first seven seasons of the show. Humor is important to human relationships. Therefore, if anyone born in America between 1970 and 1986 does not like or ‘get’ The Simpsons, he/she and I will be missing an integral component to human relationships. Only unhappiness can follow.”
The humor in the book leans heavily on pop culture (cartoons, sports, hip-hop, Oprah), cynicism (Kim is young and angry; Finch older, bitter), San Francisco/white people, and social media/the Internet. Facebook is powerful and ever-present, like a popular girl with a big mouth. This exchange, between Finch and his partner Jim Kim, is one of the book’s funniest and perhaps best encapsulates its various brands of comedy, and Finch’s exasperation (which is the second-funniest of all emotions):
“He put a picture of Lion-O from Thundercats as his profile pic.”
“Lion-O was black, don’t you think?”
“Let’s not do this now.”
“Okay, but think about it. He was like a big black gay man.”
“Who the fuck is Richard Feynman, and why are all these people quoting him?”
Later, we learn that a federal agent has been plumbing Wikipedia (the same site I used to identify Richard Feynman) in her investigation of Kim and the bad guys. Like the best kind of satire, this doesn’t need to feel plausible—only possible. Linking suspects based on their social networks, likes, interests, etc., and researching them via their Wikipedia pages: this must happen in some lazy corner of law enforcement, right? As in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), much of what transpires in Kang’s strange Bay Area feels simultaneously far-fetched and topical, absurd and totally real. And as in SSTLS, few if any of the book’s elements would have resonated five or ten years ago—a testament to Kang’s ability to “write something that would not feel like it was trying to be timeless” (again, from the WSJ interview).
At this point you are probably wondering what the hell the story is about. (If you were one of Kang’s detectives, you might check Amazon.) Here: it’s neo-noir in the same vein as John Brandon’s Arkansas (2008), right down to the multiple homicides, dual protagonists, and shifting POVs. Philip Kim’s neighbor and coworker are killed, making him a suspect; Sid Finch and Jim Kim are on the case. Kang’s chapters alternate between Philip Kim’s first person and Finch’s third; the pacing is Monta Ellis-quick, and Kang has a knack for ending chapters on a cliffhanger, making the book feel at times like an unputdownable comic. Frankly, the story confused me near the end, but I didn’t care because (by Kang’s own admission) the plot is just a vehicle for racial and social commentary—all of which, if you haven’t yet gleaned this, is spot-on and hilarious.
Which isn’t to sell the characters short: they are three-dimensional and strong, driving the story forward almost as much as the commentary does. Philip Kim, of course, is the MVP, the one you’ll really miss. For all the valid talk in The Dead Do Not Improve of white people pandering or condescending to minorities, trying or pretending to understand or, worse, help,when true empathy or aid is beyond at least their small efforts, if not their physical/emotional capacity—for all this talk, it seems almost ironic that, in the same way I understand Seung-Hui Cho better than any white mass murderer, I feel closer to Philip Kim than any white protagonist I’ve ever encountered. Kim is a frustrated young writer with an MFA degree who grew up memorizing rap lyrics (including, incredibly, “Tha Crossroads”), is prone to infatuation, and spends all his time drinking beer, surfing the internet, and playing fantasy sports.
I suppose I’d play right into Kang’s hands if I said I even knew that guy, let alone was him. But at least I didn’t write him off.
[You can read the first thirty-one pages of The Dead Do Not Improve on Grantland.]
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.