The Asian American experience is a history of erasure. Generations of Asians in America have been forced to deal with attempts to define them as uniquely other, from the Angell treaty of 1880, which limited ships arriving in America to no more than fifteen Chinese, to the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war. Beyond legislative alienation, the popular image of Asians in America has not progressed as rapidly as the media treatment of other ethnic groups.
For many years, the Asian male of pop culture was a sinister gargoyle, a Fu Manchu, a simian general Tojo, or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The more recent archetype is a bumbling eunuch, Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, or the Chinese intern on Silicon Valley.
Leland Cheuk’s new novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, subverts these stereotypes by exaggerating them into a foundational mythology. Sulliver Pong, the eponymous narrator, on trial for the attempted murder of his bureaucrat father, recites a multigenerational guignol of his stupid, unlucky forbears, starting with a nineteenth-century railroad worker and arriving in the present day with his father as the mayor of Bordirtoun, New Mexico. The frame tale, in which frontier and internment camp episodes are woven, is Sulliver’s campaign to replace his physically abusive, womanizing, real estate developer father Saul as the mayor.
An immigrant family’s success or lack thereof after arriving in America is familiar. What is fresh is that each generation of Pong men proves to be inept or evil. This is not a story of a fall from grace or redemption, but persistent, stupid malice. In contrast to the bumbling asexual nerds of television Asians, the men of the Pong family are misogynist sexual omnivores. At one point, the narrator’s great uncle beats a prostitute to death after she refuses his offer of financial support. The Russian doll structure of the novel is mirrored in the interlocking hierarchies of cruelty within the Pong family. The men are victims of the white establishment, and the women are victims of the men. The most realized female character, Sulliver’s mother, is a doormat who refuses to leave her husband. Even Sulliver’s treatment of women is reprehensible, stealing money from his wife while plotting to seduce his pregnant childhood friend. The sexual mania is not presented as suave machismo, but as a (primarily financial, and rather mundane) vice. Sulliver regales the reader with asides about his porn addiction and his visits to strip clubs, both of which are at odds with the respectable front he puts forward to the characters in his universe.
At times the backstory is more compelling than the contemporary sequences. While the misfortunes visited on the Chinese in America have served as narrative grist for other novels, by making the victims of these wrongs so reprehensible, Cheuk makes them all the more real. The founding myth of America is that anyone can make it here if they work hard and are honest, but Cheuk seems to imply that only through dishonesty and greed is success assured.
By making the characters so grotesque, Cheuk successfully renders the grotesque elements of American history normal, paradoxically more believable than if presented with a straight face. In addition to the monstrous Pong men, another element of this technique is the frequent departures from realism into giggling Tom Robbins situational comedy territory.
The press release described the book as appealing to fans of the Coen Brothers, which seems to be an apt comparison. The satirical bent in the novel sometimes veers out of tragicomedy and into simple comedy, but this may be a case of too much never quite being enough. Like Catch-22, the humorous tone eventually becomes suffocating and disturbing when contrasted with the escalating themes of domestic abuse and racism. The manic pitch of the novel careens toward overwhelming excess, but never quite veers outside of a realistic universe or conventional narrative.
One recurring theme is the use of broken English. For example, Sulliver’s ancestor opens a brothel named Bordirtoun because he is unable to spell “border town,” and the frontier town grows up around his misspelt den of iniquity. The wry comic asides reach an uneasy pitch, but are never quite overwhelming, perhaps because the novel is not quite able to commit to its own excess. The weakest part of the novel is its ease. To deal with serious topics, even in a hilarious vein, is to invite analysis as a serious work, and the breezy tone makes this difficult. Cheuk clearly knows something, either through lived experience or his own reading, about Chinese Americans of the nineteenth century, failing marriages, and small-time corruption. However, the degree of accessibility is frustrating. Were any of these themes to be mined deeper, they might have been more satisfying than the slapdash gestalt we are presented with.
While the Sulliver himself is an exaggerated figure, his closeness to our reality leads the reader to assume he is the most autobiographical of the Pong men. Paradoxically, the modern sequences are the parts with the least commitment to realism. Deflating the archetype of the hardworking immigrant is a more rewarding project than deflating the archetype of the Asian-American nerd, simply because while dismantling contemporary Asian stereotypes is not a threadbare project, the myth of the self-made man is more ubiquitous and has received less pushback.
To discuss writing (or art) by Asian-Americans as uniquely Asian-American has historically been to discuss it in terms of subject. Cheuk is not the first person to attempt to dismantle the model minority pigeonhole through manic overstatement. A possible antecedent is Jon Morigetsus 1993 film Terminal USA, which depicts an Asian-American family as drug-addled sex criminals in a John Waters vein. Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has created narratives about family obligations interspersed with intensely visceral body horror sequences, all rendered in a pastel funny animal style. Leland Cheuk’s madcap family novel is exciting not just as satire of the curdled American dream, but as a major touchstone of a uniquely Asian-American voice.
The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, by Leland Cheuk. Chicago, Illinois: CCLaP Publishing, November 2015. 312 pages. $17.99, paper.
Ben Duax grew up in suburban Sacramento and studied painting at Hunter College in Manhattan. He has performed as the pianist in a performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33” at the Museum of Modern art, seen Pasolini’s film Salo over a hundred times and has a 1400 rating on li.chess.com. Follow Him on twitter at @ben_duax2.