ARE ASIAN-AMERICANS THE NEW JEWS?
12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Since the 1989 publication of Amy Tan's enormously popular The Joy Luck Club, "a substantial literary sub-genre has emerged," according to literary critic Jonathan Yardley, "to rival the fiction from the 1950s and 1960s by Bellow, Malamud, Roth et al." Yardley is not the only writer to compare the recent boomlet of novels and short-story collections about the Asian-American experience to the Jewish-American literary explosion four decades ago. The trend was ready-made for the cultural moment, because Asian-Americans have something to offer everybody. There's a collision of Western culture and non- Western tradition; families that appear functional but feel dysfunctional; and an ever-present language barrier at a time when the "problem of language" is becoming more and more central to the art of fiction.
There are Chinese-American writers, Japanese-American writers, Korean- American writers. They have one fascinating commonality: Their first novels tend to be not so much autobiographical as genealogical, dealing more with the lives of their parents than their own. The boomlet is now old enough that its authors have produced second and third novels. Tan has published The Hundred Secret Senses and The Kitchen God's Wife. And two of the writers who garnered the most praise in her foot-steps, Gish Jen and Gus Lee, have come out this spring with their second and third novels, respectively.
Jen's Mona in the Promised Land (Knopf, 320 pages, $ 24) treats the children of the Chinese refugees who figured in her 1991 Typical American. In a suburb that resembles Scarsdale, young Mona gets swept up in the ethnic consciousness of the late 1960s. Mona loses her virginity to a hippie boyfriend who lives in a tepee on his parents' lawn; takes one of her parents' "exploited" black restaurant workers into the family home as a clandestine lodger; and winds up converting to Judaism. The net effect of the book is not to poke fun at ethnic preoccupations but to exalt them, yet the book is saved from multicultural mushiness by moments of ruthless satire, as in the point-scoring system that the Scarsdale children (black, Jewish, and Asian) resort to when they try to rank the victimizations of their respective parents. It's a respectable effort at a writer's-program slice-of-suburban- life novel, but since Jen is incapable of writing straight, it's a slog getting through its 320 pages.
Lee's Tiger's Tail (Knopf, 298 pages, $ 24) is a thriller about Chinese- American military lawyer Jackson Tan, drunkenly remorseful over his combat experiences in Vietnam. Tan goes undercover in Korea in 1974 to find his best friend, another lawyer who has disappeared while looking into the theft of nuclear materials. He battles a corrupt, Kurtz-like army captain and has a lot of hard-boiled adventures with prostitutes and enlisted men. The dialogue is movie-inspired and stilted, in a she-had-a-pair-o'-gams-that-just-wouldn't- quit style. The whole novel resembles a cross between Tom Clancy and Damon Runyon:
"Said I'd get the clap running with a harlot. He said, Is that all you can be? A whoremonger? He pulled out an M-16 with a short barrel." A CAR-15, an Armalite cousin to the M-16, prone to jams.
It's a good page-turning beach book. Like Mona in the Promised Land, it is better than the run-of-the-millnovels in its genre, but no one would confuse Tiger's Tail with The Adventures of Augie March, unless he were trying to make the case for an Asian literary Renaissance.
So there is a disparate bunch of relatively decent Asian-American writers out there with one or two things in common. But if Asian-Americanswere our generation's equivalent of Philip Roth & Co., how would we know it? How does one ethnic group come to embody the fictional aspirations of an entire big, diverse country? Two possibilities suggest themselves: the first is a turn of ethnic character that gives a people a gift for a particular type of storytelling. Saul Bellow, writing in 1963, discerned in various works from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav to Sholom Aleichem to Grace Paley a "Jewish attitude," in which "laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two." True, perhaps, but that's nothing a contemporary writer would own up to. In the three decades since Bellow wrote those words, the idea that any race has any specific cultural aptitudes has come to be seen as untenable, even revolting -- as Bellow himself found out when he was widely reviled for asking, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him."