Hipster Noir at Its Finest: Jay Caspian Kang's The Dead Do Not Improve
Soon after the opening of Jay Caspian Kang’s “hipster noir” novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, an aging hippie is shot and killed. Was it murder, or merely collateral damage from a gang shooting? And is her neighbor involved, or is he the target? It’s a standard enough set-up, but this is anything but a standard detective story. Kang’s literary fiction debut seems like something Thomas Pynchon might write, if he were twenty-something, Korean-American, and caught up in the Internet economy.
In a way, there are two books battling each other here. The novel begins as a straightforward detective story, populated by the Warby Parker-wearing, dot-com-working characters who represent modern San Francisco. This is turf that will be familiar to fans of Lisa Lutz, the author of an acclaimed series about a family of private investigators, and it is pure pop candy. But then, Kang turns from private eye to “private I,” looking at racial identity and the nature of belonging, more like Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed debut, The Intuitionist. As a result, The Dead Do Not Improve is both provocative and entertaining.
The story alternates between first-person accounts by Phillip Kim, a Korean-American MFA grad who writes love advice on a website for “bros” who have been dumped, and third-person views of Sid “Keanu” Finch, a surfing detective who watches his changing city with dismay for all the things we both envy and love to hate about San Francisco. There may be a conspiracy that involves a peculiar constellation of surfers and psychedelic ex-programmers who believe that the Internet will destroy us all. Kim may be a stand-in for Cho Seung-hui, the real-life Korean American shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre. It can get weird. Roll with it.
Kang is aiming for something deeper: an examination of what it means to grow up Korean-American, and the nature of that hyphen. He uses a more white-sounding name at his job because “Nobody trusts an Oriental with love advice.” But then, in a hilarious and hopelessly profane exchange, Finch’s partner, who is also a cranky Korean-American named Kim, describes “Koreans as the new Jews. When white people have to stop feeling guilty about you and start planning around you, it means you’ve arrived.” That Kim was describing his perverse joy at finding two Korean names in a newspaper article on New York City’s ten worst landlords.
The Dead Do Not Improve is a darkly funny, satirical look at what it means to be: a hipster, a surfer, a Korean-American, a San Franciscan, an American, a member of “Generation Y,” and more. It’s ambitious, certainly, but it trips along with a hip-hop sensibility that pulls the reader along. Early on, Kim talks about others have always projected onto him: “despite my most silent, most earnest wishes, people were never embarrassed to tell me about their latest adventures with kimchi.” This book is Kang’s revenge, and it is sweet. And salty. And bitter. And sour. And, yes, umami.
1. The Baby Molester and I talked only twice. The first time, she knocked on my door and asked for four eggs. I remember being amused by the anachronism--what sort of person still asks her neighbor for eggs?--until I realized it had been years since I’d had a single egg in my refrigerator, much less two.
The second time she knocked, it was well past midnight on some blown-out Tuesday. I was clicking through Craigslist w4m’s, my head swimming in a desperate, almost haikulike fog--“oh my loneliness / it rolls through the foggy bay / here it comes. Again!” When I heard the knock, I hurried to the door, anticipating some new girl, the sort of beautiful girl who, when her hair is wet from the rain, looks more like a planet than a girl. But it was just the Baby Molester in a peach slip. And one limpening sock. The light from an earth-friendly bulb cut through that electric hair, exposing a fragile, mottled quail egg of a skull. A look somewhere close to smugness hovered over her shiny face. She asked for a cigarette and, after an awkward pause, asked for two. She had a guest, she explained. I gave her five and really considered asking her some questions, but did not.
2. It was Kathleen who came up with the name Baby Molester. This was three years ago, at a concert in Golden Gate Park. I had just moved to San Francisco from New York. Staring down at the mass of dank heads, I asked Kathleen, “Who knew an entire city could be filled with ugly white people?” She said, “Calm down. This is a bluegrass festival.” On a dirt patch by the stage, this old hippie was stomping up a cloud of dust. Two young girls danced at her feet, clapping like drunken seals. A woman, hopefully the mother, hovered nearby, forcing the sort of smile that is forced more in San Francisco than anywhere else in this country.
Later, at a dustier, abandoned stage, we saw her again. This time she was dancing with someone else’s little boy. His red beret stayed on his head by some miracle of centrifugal force. His chubby, inscrutable face was contorted into the look of a young child who is contemplating whether to cry--the wide-open eyes, the twittering chin designed to stop even the most militant of spinster armies. Kathleen murmured, “There are so many reasons why a woman that age would feel the need to molest other people’s babies.” After a pause, she added, “And each one of them is heartbreaking.” I murmured my agreement, said something devastating about the failure of the sixties, and spent the rest of the night feeling superior to the entire state of California.
Two weeks later, when I moved into my own apartment, the Baby Molester was sitting on the stoop. I called Kathleen and marveled at the smallness of the city. She said, “Yeah, it’s a small city. But all cities are small, you know?”
I tried to not hate her for saying something so stupid. But, you know.
3. I confess: I slept through the whole thing. Through the gunshots, the police sirens, the ambulance, the detective who might have knocked on my door, the hushed discussions of the neighbors. And since there was no real reason to leave the apartment the next day, I did not witness any of the police tape or the shattered glass or the crime reporters or the wary gang members walking up and down the street just to make sure.
I learned about the death of the Baby Molester because I was bored and Googling myself. I had found nothing but the same shit I always find--a five-hundred-word essay I had written for a now-defunct blog about how Illmatic had helped me grieve for my dead parents (number 14 in search), a published excerpt of my ultimately unpublished novel (number 183 in search), a pixelated photo of me, fatter, reading at a bar in Brooklyn (number 2 in image search). I was once again humiliated to know that my version of “Philip Kim” could elicit nothing more than those three flags stuck in the landscape of all the other Philip Kims of the world. Desperate (again) to find something else, I added my address into the search with a litany of hopefully descriptive keywords: ASIAN, THIN, ATHLETIC, LONG-HAIRED, BROODING, CHEEKBONES.
My hope was that some girl might have watched me lean up against a tree or maybe light a cigarette or pet an agreeable dog or frown over a burnt cup of coffee and maybe she might have caught my eye and maybe she might have decided to post something cute and short in “Missed Encounters” or some forum like that, on the decent chance that I might, in fact, be trolling the Internet for her.
When I narrowed the search by Googling my cross-streets, a link appeared to a story in the Chronicle’s crime blog: WOMAN SLAIN IN MISSION DISTRICT. The details were spare--the location, the age of the victim, the adjective “elderly.”
I knew it was her. Our block is short and lined with lime trees, and every other old lady I’ve seen walking around is Mexican.
After some deliberation, I called Kathleen. She sounded weary and practical, and although it had been over a year since we had spoken last, she politely consoled me over the murder of my neighbor, citing statistics, the fragility of our lives. One day, you take the 31 to Golden Gate Park to dance with the children of people who see you as nothing but a testament to the exhausting reality of idealism. Sometime later, an illegal immigrant fires a gun on your street, and the bullet, by force of infinitesimal chance, or God, shatters your sole window and, deflected slightly by the impact, travels exactly to the spot where you have decided to put your head for the night.
She said, “Crazier things happen all the time. You know?”
I said, “That’s retarded.”
She said, “What?”
“You’re being retarded.”
“Why do you even care so much? You told me you talked to her twice.”
“Why don’t you care?”
“Because it’s senseless and insane to worry about stray bullets. Think of the odds.”
“Well, I have to care about it. I don’t have your luxury.”
“She lived next door to me.”
A cautious distance colors us all banal. At least that’s the tendency. I said someone was waiting for me and hung up the phone.
After twenty, thirty minutes on the couch, I was over it. I put on my pants and left the apartment.
4. Outside, the only remaining evidence was a shattered windowpane and a sagging, trampled perimeter of police tape. Someone had smeared a pinkish substance on the white slatting that framed the window. Upon closer inspection, the pink stuff appeared to be lipstick.
Across the street, a young couple stared woefully at the crime scene. They lived in one of the gentrifier condos. The guy was always making an effort to talk to the block’s indigenous Mexicans. In two years, neither the guy nor the girl had ever said a word to me because their safety was not compromised by my presence. The girl was the sort of girl who looks best in jeans and a performance fleece. She had an extraordinary ass. The man owned, but rarely rode, a turquoise Vespa.
When he saw me walking down the steps to the sidewalk, the guy shrugged, but with meaning. Because I am a bit of a coward, I shook my head, approximating his meaning. My way of saying, “It’s a damn shame.” To those people.
5. I wandered around for a while before admitting there was nowhere to go, so I ducked into BEAN and took a seat near the bathrooms. I hated everything about BEAN--the unfinished ceilings, the Eames-wonderful chairs, the sanitary tables, the architectural cappuccinos, the barrel-aged indie rock. Still, I was always finding myself there, partly because it was a half block from my apartment, but also because I, demographic slave, am always finding myself in the places I hate the most.
I ordered a cappuccino and read the Chronicle’s crime section. Someone got beaten badly on 26th and Treat. A pizza shop was held up in Oakland. Under a footbridge in the Tenderloin, police found a homeless man who had been stabbed to death. My mind drifted to some detective story I had read back in college, and although I could recall the author’s name and the particulars of the story, I could not translate what any of it was supposed to mean. I did remember that the corpse in the story was not a corpse until it became a corpse again. And that at the end, through some trick of logic, which might or might not have been inspired by Schrodinger’s cat, it turned out the corpse had never been a corpse at all. I remembered not really understanding anything, really, but I did remember a girl in the class who everyone called Pooch Cooch, and remembered Pooch Box wore white and pearl earrings, and remembered that I, absurdly, had felt sorry for her. And finally, I remembered that my confusion over the story had, in part, helped convince me to give up my scholarly ambitions.
As I was sitting in BEAN, amid the city’s aesthetically unemployed, the memory of my stupidity still embarrassed me. Since college, I had read maybe two hundred, three hundred books and even tried my hand at writing a difficult novel. Did it not stand to reason, then, that I might have somehow, unknowingly, developed the skills to understand the meaning of the corpse? I really considered walking up the street to the used bookstore to have a crack at redemption, but I had spent two hours in there a few days back. The girl behind the counter had a perfectly symmetrical haircut and stared impassively at everyone who entered the store. Her recommendation shelf floated nicely between the listless ether of Joan Didion’s female narrators and the histories of hardscrabble things: car bombs, prison gangs, crystal meth. How could I face her twice in a week?
I sat in my seat instead. Read the paper, jotted pretend notes to myself on a napkin. One read: “WILLIE MCGEE.” Another read: “You say, I talk slow all the time.” A couple hours passed like that. By the time Adam walked into BEAN, I had completely forgotten about the Baby Molester.
6. Adam was from my time in New York. We both entered Columbia’s graduate creative writing program at the age of twenty-three. Neither of us really ever had anything to write about, but we held to the credo that all young, privileged men in their twenties should never ever discuss their lives in any meaningful way. Our stories were about boredom, porn, child geniuses, talking dogs.
We spent three, four years that way, telling the same jokes. Adam eventually picked up a variety of drug habits because he thought they would provide a grittier spin on the traditional American Jewish experience. They did not. As for me, all my morose, nameless narrators had two living parents, and, although people were always dying, nobody ever succumbed to stomach cancer or a car wreck. To all those raceless men, death was funny or it was strange, but it was never talked about, at least not directly.
When it became clear that the thriftily coiffed girls of the publishing industry were just not that into me, I moved to San Francisco to follow Kathleen. Adam had just started dating a hard-luck porn star in North Hollywood. A year and a half later, he showed up in San Francisco with his father’s car and a new girlfriend.
At some point, it became clear we had to find work. Adam started teaching creative writing at a school for the criminally insane. I got a job editing content for a website providing emotional help for men recently abandoned by loved ones.
7. Adam sat down at my table without a word of welcome. It could no longer count as coincidence, us finding each other here. We talked about TV, fantasy football, breasts. Outside, the fog had condensed down to a drizzle. The baristas started up their chatter. One was worried the rain would drive the crackheads underneath the awnings, meaning she would have to perfectly time her trip to the bus stop. Another said she liked the rain because it reminded her of her favorite soul song. Adam took a bad novel out of his jacket and began to read. I took my laptop out of my bag and read through my dumb e‑mail. After a while, Adam asked, “What’s good?”
“Odd word choice.”
I pointed at the computer screen. “What could be good?”
“You on Craigslist?”
“Well, that’s your problem. On Craigslist, things can be good.”
The mention of Craigslist loosed a current of shame. I thought about the grainy, dimly lit women of the previous night--the camera angles that soften noses, the anonymous, truncated breasts, the loose attempts at dignity, the unabashed anatomy, the ball-crushing loneliness, the labyrinthine possibilities of hyperlinks; all of it reminded me that my neighbor had been murdered the night before.
I told Adam about it. He arched his eyebrows and asked, “Through the window, just like that, huh?”
“Yeah. I don’t think it was a stray bullet, though. Somebody had taken the time to smear some pink shit all around the window.”
“Fucking biblical, man.”
“It wasn’t blood.”
“You said it was pink?”
“Like lipsticky pink.”
Adam stuck his pinkie in his coffee and frowned. He said, “Easy explanation. Gang violence. Nortenos. That’s their color.”
“She was like a sixty-year-old white woman.”
“Exactly. They want los gringos like us out of their neighborhoods.”
“I feel it necessary to remind you that I’m not white.”
“Did you read Mission Dishin’ this morning?”
“Some dude got beat up. A tech nerd.”
“I saw that.”
“Up on Treat.”
“I saw it.”
“That’s like eight dudes getting beat this month. And then your neighbor gets shot. You don’t think there’s something going on?”
I confess it made me feel a little important.
8. Adam went back to reading his book. An e‑mail from my boss arrived in my inbox:
FROM: bill TO: phil
phil. here are today’s gold members. get back to me.
A spreadsheet was attached. Twenty-six names in all.
The company had recently put a significant amount of money into targeted advertising, a departure from the previous strategy of placing banner ads on any porn sites offering free trailers. The old idea was that men who had recently broken up with their girlfriends would probably increase their porn intake, but not to the point where they would be willing to hand over a credit card number.