It has been a long time since I have read fiction. Nonfiction has comprised effectively the entirety of my pleasure reading for years, and spending the past year developing ALDLAND has meant that sports news (i.e., more nonfiction, with the exception of hockey teams’ playoff injury reports) has dominated my online reading as well. Once I set aside Justice Breyer’s book earlier this year, I began to contemplate a return to fiction. I’m not quite ready yet, though, opting first to tackle Michael Sandel’s latest, which I’ve nearly finished. I also have contemplated reading Hampton Sides‘ Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin next just as an excuse to remain in nonfiction’s friendly waters.
My inexplicable resistance to fiction nevertheless is slipping, however. Although I had no intention of reading or buying Jay Caspian Kang’s debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, I had been hearing about its release for a year, so it was easy enough to decide to take a peek when the Grantland blogger offered the first thirty-five pages of his book for free perusal online. My reactions to the experience of reading the opening of Kang’s novel were not complex or groundbreaking. My first thought was that it felt not so bad to be reading fiction again. My second was that the text seemed awfully autobiographical, and I couldn’t decide whether that irritated me. My third thought was confirmatory of my preconceived notion that there was no need for me to buy or read (now, the entirety of) this book. My fourth thought, upon completing the excerpt, was that maybe I would get the book, as a flippant way to ease back into fiction. I suppose that’s marketing at work, but my idea was that, rather than hold out on fiction not because I didn’t want to be reading it but because I felt I had to reengage in a particular way, and the choice of which fictional work would be my first would be too fraught.
I was not expecting to see any more of Kang’s text anywhere outside of the book’s covers when I came upon his recent Gawker post. Apparently a lot of other people thought The Dead Do Not Improve seemed pretty autobiographical too. For some reason, this (again, apparent) sentiment put Kang on the defensive, so he took to Gawker to try to tamp down the issue by presenting yet another, albeit much shorter, segment (italicized below by me for clarity) of the novel, this time with new annotations included:
To try to shove that top-down question of “how much of your life is in your character” and all of its political implications a bit further out to pasture, I’ve annotated an excerpt from The Dead Do Not Improve to tell you exactly what parts came from my life and what parts did not. My hope is that you will find these details to be about as unimportant as they ultimately are.
The true parts I have tagged IRL. The fictional parts are tagged FICTION.
Those mornings in the parking lot with my three friends, the Ronizm mornings: Seth Bloomberg (IRL: name altered) picked me up at seven-twenty on the dot.
In precal, I sat between Heba Salaama and Paul Offen. Years later, Heba Salaama, better known to the greater student public as Heavy Salami, won a hundred thousand dollars on some network TV weight loss show (IRL), but back before her dreams came true, in those pre-9/11 days when the last name Salaama was simply a curiosity, Heba was the terrifying, ethnically ambiguous girl who sat next to me in math, who kept telling me that I smelled like weed (IRL), who threatened to tell Ms. Butler if I didn’t let her copy last night’s homework (FICTION).
The entire exercise is available here. Upon reading all of it, my immediate reaction is that whether “these details” are “unimportant”– to the reader’s experience of Kang’s novel, presumably– is beside the point.
I chose the two excerpts of the excerpt that I did because they demonstrate a) Kang’s ability to use a particular, basic literary technique, and b) his decision not to employ that technique in a particular instance. Explicitly, Kang’s annotation reveals that he knows how to write about a person he’s met while disguising that person’s identity by using a different name, an elementary and widely accepted technique. There is nothing objectionable about writing about real people in the fiction context; indeed, it seems like it would be difficult to write convincing fiction about human beings without having met and being influenced by one or two. Still, as a matter of common courtesy and because there’s little to be gained by using real names, authors usually use a different name for their character. Like any author, Kang is familiar with this technique, and he demonstrates it with the character he calls “Seth Bloomberg.”
In the second excerpt, however, Kang declines to use this technique and goes out of his way to let us know that he’s chosen not to. “Heba Salaama,” the protagonist’s classmate, is a real person, and her name is Heba Salaama. Kang not only expressly tells us this, but he goes further out of his way to let readers know that Salaama is a real person by linking to a video of her. Within one sentence, Kang makes pointed reference to Salaama’s weight and ethnic background and mixes in a fictional part about academic cheating (recall the actual book does not contain the annotations being discussed here) before moving on to an extended discussion of his actual high school’s “lone autistic kid,” whose real name Kang also uses.
The issue here is not that Kang’s protagonist, named for another of Kang’s actual classmates, dwells on the physical characteristics, ethnic background, or mental capacity of other characters. Writers should be honest in this way, and protagonists, however autobiographical, do not have to be morally good people. Instead, the issue is why Kang felt the need to use the real names of real people like Salaama. Even if it isn’t a requirement for their protagonists, writers ought to be morally good people, and even though morality isn’t necessarily about balancing, two initial questions come to mind: 1) What does Kang gain by using the real names of people like Salaama?, and 2) What do people like Salaama lose when Kang incorporates them into his story, and publicly highlights likely unflattering episodes of their lives? For himself, Kang appears oblivious, which borders on the literally unbelievable.