Thursday, August 30, 2012

Jay Caspian Kang Brings Out The Dead

The Dead Do Not Improve
If you are looking for one last summer read, Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang will leave you bemused if nothing else. Not a stitch of it makes for great literature, but it is smart and satirical with frequently funny commentary that masquerades as a neo-crime noir. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. But it won't likely disappear into some forgotten pile of dust.

Maybe it's to be expected. Kang is an editor at Grantland, a pop culture/sports site where the storytelling is often more important than the story. This loopy romp around the Bay Area has the same sort of voice.

The story is fiction, with some heavy-handed navel-gazing by Kang. The similarities between him and the principal character — recent MFA grad Phillip Kim — are almost nonexistent beyond a few swapped facts and experiences, including a shared fascination with Cho Seung-Hui that ends (or perhaps begins) in bewilderment. But that's not the story. The story is about all sorts of strangeness.

Dead Do Not Improve is freshly entertaining and wildly wonky. 

It opens with Kim missing the possibly random and senseless killing of his neighbor, an aging underworld denizen, the night before. He doesn't even learn about her death until he Googles himself out of boredom the next morning.

surfAfter he discovers the killing, he starts obsessing over the proximity — bullets cutting through his apartment complex while he slept. It could have easily been him who was hit, but it was Dolores Stone aka "The Grey Beaver" instead. He had spoken to her twice: Once she had borrowed four eggs; another time, she asked for cigarettes. He gave her five.

His fascination with her death takes hold all the more as he discovers her career link to the seedier side of San Francisco. Friends tell him to brush it off, but there isn't much in his life to distract him. His job is best described as an incessant reminder that he was a failed creative hack.

Every day, he sorts through company emails from new clients, men who had recently suffered a breakup and needed coaching to help them get over it. He is supposed to write personal messages, but has found it much more satisfying to plug in his prewritten responses. Cut, paste, and tweak like Adlibs.

While Kim thinks in perpetual whimsy, Finch surfs up the punch.

Since the clever but passive wallflower Kim is not enough to drive the story despite his self-loathing and humorous anecdotes, Kang leans on Siddhartha "Sid" Finch aka "Keanu," a surfer turned homicide detective assigned to investigate the case with his "potato head" partner Jim Kim. Mostly, Finch comes across as a pragmatic beach drifter who happens to have a badge.

It doesn't take long before he discovers a connection between Kim and Stone that neither of them knew. Kim's company and Stone have been targeted by an ultra-fanatical subculture of militant organic cafeteria owners. It's a collective of employees who have cooked up a plan to thin the growing schools of pariahs who feed off dupes on the Internet and in San Francisco. Then again, the killing could just as easily be errant gang violence.

Jay Caspian Kang
With two protagonists, Kang deftly allows latecomer Finch to follow leads while Kim begins to fear for his life and pursue a love interest. A cross sampling of his many insights include being Korean-American, the silliness of social media, memories of his father trying to prove that Bob Dylan was not overrated, and a sense of self-loathing instilled by the marketing efforts of companies like Whole Foods.

This is where the book works the best, with Kang infusing his personal perspectives and voice. He too was born to Korean immigrants and grew up in Boston and Chapel Hill. He attended Bowdoin College where he won the 2003 Sinkinson Prize for Best Short Story before being kicked out of school over his behavior.

Dead Do Not Improve Finds 3.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The real trouble with the novel is in pretending it has a crime story plot. While it does rub up with neo-noir, it only does so in an effort to provide a sense of purpose to the abundance of entertaining distractions and creative commentary. This doesn't make it any less enjoyable, but does make it less than cohesive. Likewise, Kang never promises nor does he offer any answers for his many subjects.

Knowing that before you pick up the book will likely deliver a better read. And as more people do, there is a good chance this will be one of those books that becomes a cult classic loved in future decades. Dead Do Not Improve: A Novel by Jay Caspian Kang is available on Amazon. You can also find the novel at Barnes & Noble or download it from iBooks. The audiobook is read by Feodor Chin, who delivers his own memorable take on the material.
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