Don Lee’s prose is not pretty, or even particularly effortless in his novel. He tends towards wordy, didactic passages and heavy-handed, eye-rolling dialogue—one racist bar customer calls Eric a “Chinese wonton” (297). His characters remain characters, never fully embodying the human beings they wish to represent, and many seem to step in only to move the plot along or provoke an epiphany from the myopic narrator. But in failing to write movingly about ethnicity and/in art, Lee has also managed to succeed.
Here are the things about me that you could glean from a quick glimpse at my search history:
I hurt my calf kickboxing and I want to do something about it. I have a crush on my kickboxing instructor and I maybe want to do something about it. I am learning how to cook quinoa. I have finished only a fraction of my taxes. I don’t know if I have health insurance. I am still learning how to cook quinoa.
Remember when you were a fan of just about everything? “Please don’t scream in the car!” your dad would shout when you became overexcited by a dog we had just driven past, or a convertible with its top up. “You’re going to give me a heart attack!” As early as the first grade, you had already accessed your stores of obsessive energy. You could not be contained.
I eat the stinky tofu on my second day in Beijing, passing up two metal carts before finally biting the bullet at a stand in Wangfujing. I hand over ten kuai and watch as the vendor first deep-fries the tofu, and then ladles the golden cubes into a grey gravy. Then he scoops the wet tofu into a cup, spoons a dollop of hot chili paste on top, and presents the nightmare sundae to me with a long toothpick as my only utensil.