Reviewed: The Dead Do Not Improve
by Jay Caspian Kang
(Hogarth, August 2012)
It is a sucker’s bet to read too much into a book’s cover blurbs, but every so often you come across one that can’t help but color your perceptions. Such was the case when I picked up Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve and read:
Kang has told a story that captures the lives of twentysomethings as they wallow in the spaces between real life and the Internet, and, along the way, created an accurate, hilarious portrait of boredom and self-pity in the “zeitgeist.”
This is, perhaps, the least enticing description of a novel ever written.
It feels increasingly impossible to avoid these “twentysomethings” and their “wallowing”—with every think piece about the effects of social media or review of Lena Dunham’s Girls, the torrent of referential commentary about the kids these days grows ever more wearisome. Kang, who is currently an editor at the sports and culture site Grantland, has been both in and a little above the fray; while he certainly slings his fair share of the junk culture half-analysis so often attributed to the wallowers, a keen sympathy and intelligence shines through in his best essays. And so, with some trepidation, I went ahead with the book in spite of the blurb.
The novel primarily follows Philip Kim, a young San Francisco transplant with an MFA in fiction writing and a job at an Internet startup scamming romantically spurned men with post break-up “counseling.” Philip is unmoored from his aspirations and drowning in weary irony, his days spent stonedly emailing aggrieved men’s rights crusaders or trolling the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist: “I was clicking through Craigslist w4m’s, my head swimming in an almost desperate, haikulike fog—‘oh my loneliness / it rolls through the foggy bay / here it comes. Again!’” When his neighbor—a bedraggled hippie named Dolores Stone—is shot, Philip is shaken out of his mindset of half-serious solipsism by a mystifying chain of events that force the uneasy convergence of his online and corporeal selves.
After the Stone shooting, the novel splits into two threads, alternating between Philip’s unwitting tumble into a web of hostilities surrounding the murder and the efforts of detective Sid Finch to solve the mystery. The novel merrily leans on pulpy whodunit tropes as Sid pursues leads through San Francisco’s porn scene to a group of New Age cyberpunks who may be related both to the shooting and the escalating harassment of Philip. As things unravel with equal menace and absurdity, the novel slowly begins to zero in on the fissures in Philip’s identity that have led to his quandary.
If the plot sounds difficult to follow and perhaps a bit disjointed, that’s because it is. Kang has made the chaotic illogic of “this Internet media social networking fuckanalia” the governing force in his characters’ lives—their universe is a constant commingling of the seedy and the highbrow, the senseless and the rational. At times, the pervasive confusion feels like a well-drawn synchronicity between plot and structure, while at other times—as in the book’s befuddling finale—it feels like it creates a frustrating lack of clarity.
The novel’s strength lies in Kang’s skillful unspooling of Philip’s inner life. Like most hard-bitten ironists, Philip nurses a persistent, low-frequency grief, and Kang fills in the particulars with a deft hand. Two corridors of Philip’s psyche lead to the novel’s most potent passages: his recollections of his adolescence in Chapel Hill, and—in the most ingenious, surprising motif of the novel—his fascination with Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre.
Through Cho, Kang probes Philip’s method of relating to himself racially and creatively, and shows how his efforts to represent himself online complicate the process. Philip alternates between macabre jokes about Cho on his Facebook page and a searing awareness of how the massacre informed stereotypes of Korean Americans. His relationship to Cho is more complex than the fragmentary world of online personality “curation” can accommodate, but in a time when that curation is a dominant mode of self-expression, Philip continues to toss these scraps into the ether.
This would all be existential wheel-spinning if it weren’t for the fact that, when Dolores Stone is shot, the police can’t help but notice Philip’s history of joking about mass murder and quoting gangster rap on the Internet. All of a sudden, Philip has to answer for the slapdash and half-ironic image he’s cultivated online, and it seems that somebody has an interest in using that image to frame him for the murder of Stone and several others. Who that is, though, and what exactly his or her motives are, is never really revealed.
Kang is not interested in merely drawing fully realized characters, but also in a relatively naturalistic portrait of the way his characters represent themselves online. In this, he is successful. We understand not just the arc of Philip’s character, but how he has lived that arc through a variety of mediums, scattering disparate and incoherent pieces of himself across the Internet. When these bits float back around to him, they no longer fit the person, and the discrepancy is an unsolvable mystery. Philip has, in a way, forfeited the rights to his person—his interests, his jokes, his half-baked essays, and his forgotten friendships have been flung into the commons, no longer strictly his own, yet unmistakably belonging to him. In a sense, Philip is faced with a weaponized version of himself, and neither he nor the reader understands how this came to be.
The book’s denouement is irresolute, leaving both Philip and the reader uncertain as to what has taken place. At first blush, it seems as if Kang simply drops the many balls he has in the air. After longer consideration, though, it becomes possible to read into the ending some nuanced intent, even if its execution isn’t fully satisfying.
The symptoms ailing the novel are the symptoms ailing its characters. If the story’s ending is dramatically unsatisfying and readers may wish Kang exerted a little more control over the latter chapters, it does reveal Kang’s understanding of his subject matter. Philip, like me and most of the people I know, spends his days in a system where he is functionally fluent but essentially clueless. He’s comfortable using the Internet, but he has almost no control over how it’s impacting him on the deepest levels.
That Kang has found a way to invigorate a subject matter as overburdened as the Internet’s impact on identity and relationships would be enough to recommend The Dead Do Not Improve. But in the complex, well-drawn, and empathetic Philip, he has also crafted a protagonist that elevates this uneven book from the level of a “novel of ideas” to a rewarding and promising debut.
Read an exclusive excerpt from The Dead Do Not Improve on Grantland.