Squatting somewhere in this big old Internet of ours is something that John Warner—of The Funny Man fame—once wrote or said or was quoted as saying about writing. I’m obviously paraphrasing here, but it was a philosophical thing about how he writes or how people should write. Basically, write about what you like and know, don’t be afraid of your writing overflowing with those things, as that’s what you know best, what will keep you interested or invested, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving some of the depth out of it—Googling write what you like John Warner is turning up like less than nothing—but I think I’ve captured the gist.
And I think that gist’s especially relevant to Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, a sprawling, funny, enthralling, maddening, sloppy, universally readable mess of a debut novel that should and likely will be talked about a lot for the rest of 2012. Kang seems to follow Warner’s advice as far as content goes. The Dead Do Not Improve is stuffed with (what I have confirmed to be via his own biography and sportswriting and what I just assume to be) Kang’s general interests, which include hip-hop, film, advanced baseball statistics, Korean identity, hardcore pornography, and though I’m probably missing a few I’ll just wrap it up with the Internet as a broad thing. More than the plot or prose, Kang’s interests are what drive The Dead Do Not Improve, so whether or not you like the novel—and I do, albeit with some reservations—seems totally contingent on your interest in or knowledge of these things.
Our protagonist and sometime narrator Phillip Kim is an MFA-holding, unpublished, and generally unsavory young man in a half-gentrified area of San Francisco. When his neighbor Dolores—who Kim calls “baby molester” for reasons far less ghastly than you’d imagine but far too unimportant to really get into here—is killed by stray bullets, his world is shaken, and he soon finds himself caught in a struggle between Internet puritans and hardcore pornographers.
The Dead Do Not Improve divides its time between the first-person Kim moments and a third-person account of the investigation into Dolores’s death. On the case is Detective Siddhartha Finch—just going to go ahead and use as little space as possible and note that I hate this wink-wink are-you-in-on-this?! character naming—a laid-back surfer who gets into some trouble himself while investigating.
Though the bouncing back and forth between Kim and Finch serves a purpose on a structural level—their paths don’t cross until the very end—it also saps the book’s momentum, as Kim’s sometimes-enthralling narrative is often truncated by Finch’s dealings with San Francisco’s weirdest. Finch’s character is, relative to Kim, not all that interesting really—something of a cipher. (Though I’ve always found the most laid-back people to be painfully uninteresting. So discrimination alert or whatever).
Kim is fiercely unlikeable, but interesting. He seems pathological when talking about women—the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near on public transportation. He’s consumed by his own failings as a writer. He works for a website devoted to bilking small-but-not-insignificant amounts of cash out of recently heartbroken, vulnerable men. His expositions on happiness and life and whatever run a little long, but are consuming in their wit and observation, and really are the book’s high points—especially the bits about Korean identity. So he’s a tremendous narrator, in sum.
In fact, aside from Finch, most characters in The Dead Do Not Improve are tremendous. They are all weird beyond reason—remote-corners-of-the-Internet strange—and show the strength of Kang’s creative impulses. It’s an ensemble that’s well-sketched, not exactly over-the-top, but not reigned in too much either. Kang’s clearly got one thing down, something basic but often neglected in modern American fiction: put compelling characters in interesting situations and give them a conflict to work out. You have to be a decent writer or whatever—duh—to make the whole thing work, but it’s the ground floor that makes a piece a work of fiction rather than word salad.
As I noted earlier, I think critics will be divided by Kang’s craft more than the product itself. The characters, though enthralling, are also defined by their interests or, I guess, Kang’s interests. Their thoughts and statements are almost always expressed relative to some very specific film or song or book or whatever, which isn’t something I have a problem with really; it’s just a tendency that can make things a little too “inside,” and when you’re placing some of your readers so explicitly on the outside looking in, they might feel alienated.
Additionally, Kang does occasionally fall into a few common mistakes of the mystery/crime genre, namely expedient plot twists that wrap up chapters cleanly and quickly. Kim, quite inexplicably, finds himself a willing female companion in a snap. Finch has a conflict with some surfers he recognizes from an obscure message board—a moment whose relation to the plot I still haven’t really snuffed out.
But those mistakes are minor, and I think do little to overshadow what is an impressive, entertaining debut. The Dead Do Not Improve is by no measure on the level of the best books of 2012, or even the best debuts, but it represents an encouraging and promising beginning to a young writer’s career.