By Karen Tei Yamashita Coffee House Press, 640 pages, $19.95 (paperback)
"I Hotel," by L.A. born, Santa Cruz writer Karen Tei Yamashita, stands as the single most ambitious and experimental work of fiction I have read in a long, longtime. But her yearning to put into a single volume all of the striving, confusion, successes and failures of an entire generation of Asian-Americans living in San Francisco in the 1970s doesn’t seem to have done more than made for a glorious failure of a book. Her novel is what one critic, who happens also to live in Santa Cruz, has called “slow lit” as opposed to fast-paced utterly commercial fiction. Yamashita’s studied experiment, is made up of ten novellas, each of them focusing on a shifting, changing group of Bay Area Asian-American intellectuals during the period from 1968-1977, and each of them linked by the landmark I Hotel.
In the I Hotel, as the author puts in it an afterward, lived “mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese immigrant bachelors, men who had come to work and make their fortunes prior to World War II and who, “because of antimiscegenation laws, exclusion acts prohibiting Asian immigration, and a life of constantly mobile migrant labor, were unable to find spouses, have children, and settle in the United States…” The hotel itself was a great American landmark, in, as the novelist informs us in the body of the story itself, three incarnations, the first I (as in International)-Hotel built before the Civil War, the second built in 1873, and then rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake.
The architecture of Yamashita’s novel seems just as diverse. The novelist makes her book up out of multiple varieties of narrative prose, from exposition on historical and political subjects and events to sequences on the private lives of an enormous amount of Chinese, Filipino, and other assorted varieties of hyphenated Asian-Americans, to graphic short stories, cartoons, transcripts, stage and film dialogue to a fusion of Chinese opera and avant-garde jazz. The breadth of its embrace is encyclopedic and its effect is kaleidoscopic. It wants to inform and dazzle us on the confusions and conclusions on the question of culture and assimilation. And it often does.
One of the books glories is its focus on the bohemian poets and writers of this generation. One of the books difficulties is its focus on the political (mis)adventures of this same generation. Most of these (mostly) male characters lived Berkeley-centric lives, with the cataclysmic campus politics of the time taking up most of their waking attention, and when it isn’t Berkeley politics that concerns them it’s the politics of San Francisco State. The tedious sequences on the intricacies of Marxism-Leninism preached on these campuses makes for many pages where the reader’s eye slides off to the margins. Even some of the sprightly drawings and diagrammatics embedded in the book can’t make up for the utter dullness of outmoded political discussions.
It’s not fair for a reviewer to ask for a book the writer chose, for whatever aesthetic or sociological reasons, not to write. But when Steinbeck came up for discussion by a couple of characters I had the wish that Yamashita had stuck with a more traditional form in telling this important story, something more akin to the great novel East of Eden, the first book, as those who know the novel will recall, in which a Chinese character appears on American soil in all of his complexities and human potential. Or perhaps a Portrait of the Chinese Artist as a Young Man, with a bit more lyric to enhance the prose and the political arguments seen, as James Joyce positions the theological harangues in his original 'Portrait,' as dramatic speeches rather than rote ideological positions.
Alas, Yamashita’s version of “slow lit” turns out to be all too slow. Her novel is not unreadable, but you have to read at it, never having the chance to find yourself fully caught up in the quandries, queries, shenanigans, pleasures, and perils of her multitude of characters, so that the flow of their story carries you deep and deeper into the current of their lives.
Alan Cheuse’s latest novel, “To Catch the Lightning” is out in paperback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun