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Jay Caspian Kang impresses with 'The Dead Do Not Improve'

Jay Caspian Kang's richly observed first novel explores the troubled mind-set of a Gen-X Korean American.

By Paula L. Woods

4:00 AM PDT, October 27, 2012

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The Dead Do Not Improve
A Novel

Jay Caspian Kang
Hogarth: 272 pp, $25


Jay Caspian Kang's debut novel, "The Dead Do Not Improve," demands to be accepted on its own terms. Moving past the era in which understanding Korean culture was accomplished through "a collection of Buddhas, zenny poems … [t]igers, weird pickles and creative spins on rice," Korean American journalist Kang (an editor at Grantland) has penned a darkly comic novel about Philip Kim, a late Gen-X MFA from Columbia who lives in modern-day San Francisco, where he's influenced as much by hip-hop culture and the Internet he regularly surfs as by Albert Camus' "L'Etranger," Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and John Fante's "Ask the Dust."

After realizing "the thriftily-coiffed girls of the publishing industry were just not that into" the morose, nameless, raceless narrators of his fiction, Philip moves from New York to San Francisco. There he lives among the Mexican gang members, eccentrics and bloggers of his gentrifying Mission District neighborhood, occasionally works on a novel and makes ends meet as "Phil Davis," an Internet personal breakup coach for the male clientele of Getoverit.com.

Assigned a self-obliterating "slave master's name" in the belief that "nobody trusts an Oriental with love advice," Phil's work and life are going along as well as can be expected until his aging hippie neighbor, Dolores Stone, is murdered.

While acknowledging a moment of vague sadness over Stone's death, Phil harbors a more dangerous emotion beneath his passive demeanor. It's anger — about whites' perception of his "Koreaness," about the death of his mother from stomach cancer before he was 16, about a professor at Columbia who assumes Phil's Korean-born father could never understand "the proper musical context" of an icon like Bob Dylan because he didn't live in America in the '60s. So angry at the time at his professor for the subtly racist slight, Phil had considered killing him. Years later, he still weighs the option of hurting someone at least once a week, and bemoans not being able to find a more creative outlet.

"I used to think I could turn that violence into fiction," Phil explains, "…but fiction requires a steadier logic of who and why, good and bad, absurd and real."

"The Dead Do Not Improve" gives voice to the casual racism experienced by a younger generation of Korean Americans and the anger it engenders. The duality of Philip's life — as seen by whites who judge and dismiss him as well as through the prism of his own internal concerns — harks back to W.E.B. Du Bois, who more than a century before wrote in "The Souls of Black Folks" of double consciousness — "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

Kang has said that he originally set out to write a novel about Seung-hui Cho, the real-life Korean American shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre. Phil, too, is preoccupied with Cho's violent act and his plays "Richard McBeef" and "Mr. Brownstone" (both accessible online). But will Cho's story, the rage Phil and his fellow Korean American classmates once felt toward their professors and the current indignities he faces in San Francisco become the impetus for his own act of violence?

A series of bizarre events — including odd email from a Getoverit.com client named after Cho's McBeef and a violent encounter with possible Mexican gang members he suspects of Stone's murder— sends Kim underground, not unlike Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. But instead of heading down into the sewers, Kim and a sexy neighbor hole up in a single-room-occupancy hotel while Kang shifts the novel's point of view to the tale of Siddhartha "Sid" Finch, a San Francisco-born "trustafarian," homicide detective and wave rider.

Working the Dolores Stone case with partner Jim Kim, an older Korean with his own caustic views of his culture and the effect of the Virginia Tech massacre, Finch's investigation exposes a different San Francisco — one of aging pornographers, wacky liberal fringe groups and Ocean Beach surfing.

Finch treats readers in the process to some trenchant observations about San Francisco surf culture, including a cameo appearance by Ocean Beach singer-songwriter and surfer Chris Isaak — one of many real-life figures who populate this richly observed novel, including the authors of a Mission District blog and Frank Chu, arguably San Francisco's favorite placard-waving eccentric.

Ultimately, "The Dead Do Not Improve" is not a mystery novel, despite its genre-based plotting and allusions to crime fiction. Instead, it uses (and sometimes abuses) the genre's conventions to present a metafictional mash-up of hip-hop, hipsters, hippies and more that marks Philip Kim as an antihero for our time and flags Jay Caspian Kang as an author worth watching.

Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and has edited several anthologies.