"How much of this book is about your own life?" All novelists, even those who write about horny Centaurs or plasma cannons, have to come up with a standard response to that prickly, earnest question. As someone who has been accused of navel-gazing on the Internet, who has written a few personal essays and now has published a novel in which the protagonist shares many of the same biographical details as the author, I have certainly come to expect it.
But I've found that some writers are allowed more distance from their characters. Whenever I read Play it As it Lays or Run River, for example, I always wonder if Joan Didion herself ever tried to make her life end through sheer force of inertia. This steps into this and after some cutting-and-pasting, the collage of associations tears off into the deserts of Kern County, California. The same thing happens when I read a play or novel by James Baldwin. The angry young man from Notes of a Native Son and his very bad day sits frowning in every imagined space, every referential room. But both Didion and Baldwin wrote extensively about themselves and are better known for their essays than their fiction. The compulsion, though, reaffirms my suspicion that women, gays and minorities are more likely to be thrown into the pit of the Coliseum with their fictional creations. There's a stronger presumption that those hyphenated writers are "telling it like it was" or "bearing witness" to a life that falls outside the general American narrative.
One of the maxims of criticism dictates that it's not the job of the "tribal" author (that term comes courtesy of David Foster Wallace) to instruct the reader on what it's like to be an "other." This sentiment gets applied with great gusto all over the place, most notably the Internet, where so many discussions reach their emotional end point within the span of four or five comments. The constant application of this sentiment, despite its rightness, has wearied the idea down to the point where it now just feels like a tagline thrown out by the same people who overuse the word "problematic" and process the entirety of a complex world through the increasingly simplistic rigors of the liberal academy. In part because of this, I've long since capitulated to the fact that the majority of criticism about my novel would come from the perspective of the well-intentioned white male who is trying his best to understand all the various peoples of the world. I could tell you that there was not a word in The Dead Do Not Improve that attempts to explain "what it's like to be me," (that phrase courtesy of Britney Spears) but that proclamation would be swept into that same wearied space. And I suppose at some level, given my very typical ambitions as a writer, such a proclamation would be dishonest.
In that vein, I'd like to conduct a little experiment here on Gawker, the most Internet-y website on the Internet. To try to shove that top-down question of "how much of your life is in your character" and all of its political implications a bit further out to pasture, I've annotated an excerpt from The Dead Do Not Improve to tell you exactly what parts came from my life and what parts did not. My hope is that you will find these details to be about as unimportant as they ultimately are.
In this scene, the protagonist, Philip Kim, an In Real Life (IRL) friend of mine from graduate school who, along with another friend of ours named Adam Kaplan (also a character in the novel), authors of the Ammo and Pussy Quarterly Review, (NSFW for photoshopped image of Josh Hamilton holding a gigantic penis) which, as far as I can tell, aims to be the most offensive Quarterly Review in the history of Quarterly Reviews, has settled in at the funeral for a neighbor who has been murdered. He is accompanied by Ellen, his new love. (FICTIONAL, but a composite of a lot of different girls I knew at Bowdoin College) The funeral has sent Philip into two separate reveries about his past growing up in North Carolina and his college years at Bowdoin College.
The true parts I have tagged IRL. The fictional parts are tagged FICTION.
The band, perhaps sensing a moment, stumbled through the opening bars of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and the old hippies sang along, teary-eyed, and I wondered if anything had ever been so aesthetically objectionable and culturally inert as a bunch of old hippies singing a Peter, Paul and Mary song at the funeral of one of their old freaky San Francisco friends (IRL: As in, although this is Philip's sentiment, I mostly agree with him). And still, I thought about my mother, who would have been around their age, and her stories of protesting the Vietnam War in the streets of Seoul, and despite my attempts to suppress negativity, for Ellen's sake, I recalled the words of that fat, bald, gay music professor on how my father lacked the cultural heritage to understand Blonde on Blonde. (IRL: This did happen while I was in college, although not quite as explicitly.)
Whenever I summon up that memory, I picture my mother wandering around the basement of the music building at Bowdoin, maybe at graduation, maybe during one of those disastrous parents' weekends, lost in the linoleum, the industrial shelving, the blond oak doors that led into the small practice cubicles, and everywhere the smell of Ajax and spit valve. She had a habit of staying lost when she got lost as if wandering aimlessly was a condition that required no maintenance (IRL). During a trip to Mount Washington, she simply disappeared on a trail, and after six hours of searching and frantic chopped-English descriptions given to passersby and park rangers, we found her sitting cross-legged on the hood of our station wagon (IRL-ish). A pile of dandelion roots lay in her lap. She didn't seem to comprehend our hysteria because all she said was, "I dug these up with my keys. We can make tea out of this, believe it or not." There were other times like this, and by the time I turned twelve, we simply let her wander off, knowing we'd always find her back by the car. And so, although she died four years before I left for college (FICTION: My mother sits downstairs as I type this, Googling frantically to see if my novel is selling at all), it's logical or, perhaps, empirically validated to picture her wandering around the basement of the music building, the only place on campus where she might bump into Professor MacArthur (IRL, but name changed), who, despite his grandiose bullying, was rarely seen anywhere else. He asks if she needs help finding something and she pauses to think it over and he will wonder if this tiny woman understands the question and so he asks again, louder and slower. She will smile and ask who he is and he will tell her and she will ask if he's ever taught her son, Philip Kim, and he will thrust out his hips, in recognition, and say, yes, yes, he's a bright boy and we talk about music quite frequently. She will ask if he's the music professor who is always going on about Bob Dylan. His hands will dig into his pockets, his hips will again rock forward, and his mouth will twist into his best, magnanimous smile. Here is a nice man, she will think, about my age. She will say something clumsy about "Blowing in the Wind," and he will be careful and smile and nod and think the best liberal thoughts about sharing and the cultural exchange and maybe he will ambitiously invite her up to the music library, his other sanctuary, where he can be found every afternoon with his oversized hi-fi headphones, listening to some jazz record from the private collection he so graciously has lent out for supervised student consumption. Maybe he will sit her down at a listening carrel, snap the headphones over the black satin headband she always wore on formal occasions, the touch of a woman who was always concerned with subtlety, and play her "Visions of Johanna" or "Ballad of Hollis Brown," just to watch her face crumble with the embarrassment of something loved that was then found to be something else, a bigamist of a memory.
I've pictured myself killing him again and again, and sometimes it convinces me that I am sick, but mostly it convinces me that I am a citizen. I hope you can understand why. (FICTION?)
My hand still cradling Ellen's hand, I tried to hold off another oncoming memory, but it rammed up against my ribs, insistent as a shark's nose. Breathing in through my nostrils, I tried to feel drunker, and then, less drunk. Writers, for years, have been trying to figure out how to properly depict the fleeting, truncated, and always segmented nature of memory, but what about when it just up and crushes you straight in the sternum?
Those mornings in the parking lot with my three friends, the Ronizm mornings: Seth Bloomberg (IRL: name altered) picked me up at seven-twenty on the dot. Our precalculus class started at eight-ten, and the teacher, an obese fading blonde named Ms. Butler (IRL), who, as if to hold up a stop sign against our pity, was always telling stories about her accountant husband, strictly forbade tardiness. At the time, Seth and I carried around the proofs of our delinquency as our best offering to the outside world (IRL: sadly, I don't know if I've really changed much since), but we both still agreed that it was probably important, or at least elite-bohemian, to get into a good college. It was only a fifteen-minute drive from my house to school, but there was the five minutes it took to roll a joint, the five minutes to slowly roll through the main avenue of my subdivision while smoking the joint, the eight to ten minutes it took for us to get breakfast sandwiches at the Wilco, and the ten or so minutes we spent in the school's parking lot with our other two friends (FICTION: There were no other friends). Seth drove a safety orange 1974 Volvo inherited from his dead grandmother (IRL: anyone who went to Chapel Hill High School between 1995-1997 remembers this car), who had just used the car to shuttle back and forth from the one kosher grocery store over in Durham (FICTION). The speakers were fragile and snapped irritably every time we tried to play anything with more than a teaspoon of bass. This was a problem. All we listened to back then was gangster rap (IRL). Looking back, I wonder if I might have missed out on part of the point of "Straight outta Compton," The Chronic, or Doggystyle, because until I left high school, I had never heard those songs and albums, or any of the West Coast trunk bangers, with even a percentage of the required level of bass.
Does "Fuck tha Police" ring less true if Cube's voice gets all tinny because the only way you can turn up the volume is to crank up the treble?
Whenever those ten minutes in the car were over, we'd sling our backpacks over both shoulders to differentiate ourselves from the Phish heads and lacrosse players, as if there was some need to do so, and trundle off to class.
In precal, I sat between Heba Salaama and Paul Offen. Years later, Heba Salaama, better known to the greater student public as Heavy Salami, won a hundred thousand dollars on some network TV weight loss show (IRL), but back before her dreams came true, in those pre-9/11 days when the last name Salaama was simply a curiosity, Heba was the terrifying, ethnically ambiguous girl who sat next to me in math, who kept telling me that I smelled like weed (IRL), who threatened to tell Ms. Butler if I didn't let her copy last night's homework (FICTION). Paul Offen, our school's lone autistic kid, complete with an old man's gut, a greasy maw of black, thick hair, and a beard of pimples whose size and brightness were all the evidence we needed to prove God's great indifference, sat to my left. All of us who thought we were good and openhearted funneled our piteous love into Paul Offen (IRL). Girls were forever buttoning up his polo shirts to cover up his wiry black chest hairs and the sad paleness of his tits. The kids of Chapel Hill's noblest class-the beautiful interrelated kids whose parents operated on hearts and ran artists' retreats-were always driving off campus with Paul Offen riding shotgun, oblivious to how much we all secretly hated him for taking up such a coveted space. (IRL: it's possible it was just me, though.)
Everyone rationalized God's cruelty by trumpeting up Paul Offen's abilities in all things math. Paul Offen, they said, had been a chess prodigy who had gone off the rails. (IRL) That was what had made him autistic. Paul Offen was only in Precalculus and not BC Calculus because Mr. Thomas, the effete, dandruff-speckled head of the math department, was prejudiced (FICTION). The truth, of course, was that Paul Offen was not good at math and the only reason why he passed precal was that whenever we had a test and Ms. Butler would retire behind her desk to think fondly of her husband and his hefty load of account books and calculators, she would stare at the thick-necked and charming lacrosse dudes who were taking Precalculus for their second, third time. Had she bothered to watch the row with the big Arab girl, the melon-headed Asian whose eyes were always squintier and bloodshot, and the autistic kid, she would have seen two unabashed sets of eyes planted firmly on my paper (FICTION: I think I got a C+ in that class). And had Ms. Butler taught trigonometry the semester before or Algebra II before that, and if she had been the sort of louse who simply cannot gloss over God's apparent levity, then she would have known what only I knew, that Paul Offen's math genius was always in lockstep with my own. Over four straight semesters, he and I got everything right and wrong together. I think Mr. Thomas might have known because after passing back yet another test that Paul Offen and I had seen eye to eye on, he asked me to stay after class. Taking off his glasses to wipe away some of the dandruff that was always storming over his head, he asked me if I minded answering an awkward question. I have no idea what sort of look was on my face, but it must have been awful, because Mr. Thomas just sighed and told me I could go to lunch, and nobody ever spoke of it again.
Paul Offen, for his part, won the math award for our senior year (FICTION: We didn't have a math award). In the well-tended section of my memories, I can still remember the academic awards ceremony: the stifling heat in the gym, how it flushed the bare legs of the cheerleaders into a radiant pink, the line of teachers in modified short-sleeved black gowns, which, on account of a budget crisis, looked as if they had been made out of modified garment bags (IRL), the clatter of brass and the dull pound of the bass drum as the band shifted about in the bleachers, the hard-screwed scorn on the faces of those who were to be honored as they awaited the jeers of the mob. In earlier years, they had always ended with the English awards, but this year, because Paul Offen was being honored, the math award had been moved to the anchor position. I sat up in the bleachers by myself and watched as my Jewish friends (IRL) all took their awards and quickly scuttled off stage. When Mr. Thomas walked up to the stage, the crowd fell into a hush. All you could hear were the nasty shushes from all the bighearted girls. Mr. Thomas said something about grace and diamonds in the rough, and we all grimaced, but when he finally announced Paul Offen's name, the crowd leaped to its feet, the band blew out "St. Thomas," and the gym was filled with thunderous applause. Paul Offen waddled across the stage and stood stiffly as Mr. Thomas hugged him and handed him his reward: a protractor planted on a slate mount. He looked up at us through his greasy glasses and the hedge of his thick, unruly bangs, and nothing on his face registered that this was a moment any different from any other in his life.
For years, for me, the deep-sea trough, point bottom of human sadness, existence, even, was Paul Offen not being good at math (IRL: I do remember having this thought, but it was at a rave at a bowling alley after doing way too many drugs). I did not begrudge him for cheating off me, nor did I care about the math award, or even the sham of his reception. Rather, it upset me to know that the will of an entire town, all meshed together to force God's equalizing hand, could not actually make Paul Offen good at math, and, instead, it had been the stupidest and most typical of scenarios that had validated his offering to us all. Paul Offen had cheated off the Asian kid (FICTION). The next year, as I was trooping around from rave to rave with Hugh, trying to kill myself in the ugliest way possible, I would sometimes stare out at the groups of kids screeching and blissfully engaging in chemical bondage and suddenly be back in that gym with the same heat, the same flushed cheerleading thighs, the same efforted and brutal love. A silly slogan would flit through my head-"It is never not Paul Offen." (IRL: But again, drugs)
Forty years after the Sumer of Love, I moved to San Francisco, because, among other things, of the Summer of Love. (IRL) There was a girl back in New York who would never forgive me. And another in Boston. (IRL) Both girls were of the caretaking type, and when they saw someone whose roots had been blasted up out of the ground, they tried their best to pat back down the dirt. What the Baby Molester's sister said about San Francisco is true-the worst have scraped out the mantle of the best and wear it around as something real. It takes no genius to see that. But I moved to San Francisco because the masquerade of kindly gestures is, at least, kind. And it remains kind. And all the people who would sit back and comment on the garishness of the costumes, the hollowness of the dialogue, the lack of divine conviction, well, all those people are either dead or fifteen years old. (FICTION?)
Jay Caspian Kang was born in Seoul and grew up in North Carolina. He is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and works as an editor at Grantland. He lives in New York. The Dead Do Not Improve, Kang's first novel, is available on Amazon and at your local bookstore. To read a longer excerpt, click here.