Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Angela S. Choi's Hello Kitty Must Die

I hate Hello Kitty.

I hate her for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty.

She can’t eat, bite off a nipple or finger, give head, tell anyone to go and fuck his mother or lick herself. She has no eyebrows, so she can’t look angry. She can’t even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless, with that placid, blank expression topped by a pink ribbon.

Poor Hello Kitty. Having to go around itchy, unlicked, unscratched. Tortured by her own filth.

Having finally read Angela S. Choi's Hello Kitty Must Die, I figured it might be a good idea to throw together some thoughts on it here.

I was pretty disappointed when I realized that the blurbs on the book likening it to Chuck Palahniuk weren't at all wrong; most of the reviews I've seen basically say that it's The Joy Luck Club meets American Psycho, and, without having actually read anything by Tan or Ellis, I think that's basically dead on. Take that comparison as you will, I suppose; I for one was not especially enthusiastic about it.

That said, however, I did enjoy the book well enough, and think it had a variety of interesting things going on. I don't have a copy of the book anymore, so I'm not going to be able to do anything like close textual analysis, but I think the book's stronger points are in its playing with generalizations anyway, so I think I'll survive.

The book's protagonist, Fiona Yu, is a 28-year-old, Asian American private sector lawyer. Its narrative revolves around her meeting up with an elementary school friend who convinced her to beat up the school bully with a lunchbox full of rocks, and was himself sent off to a Juvenile Detention Facility for lighting a girl's hair on fire. He is a hymen-reconstruction surgeon in San Francisco, and they begin a sort of asexual love affair as he reveals himself to be a serial killer, and she starts to follow suit, killing off the men her father sets her up on blind dates with and her boss. This is all, as you may imagine, very fucking transgressive.

I mentioned this book, before I read it, in my essay Hello Kitty Everything & Hostile Object Theory, and I think what I said there still basically applies. In a way, actually, it's even more accurate than I anticipated; when Fiona complains about Hello Kitty, it's mostly in asides like the one quoted above, and her anger almost always fixates on Kitty's absent mouth. I still feel like this particular issue is one that can be worth pursuing, in terms of subversion and reinterpretation, but that it stems from a misreading of Kitty's function, positioning her as a representative object when her real power lies elsewhere.* What I didn't expect out of Hello Kitty Must Die, and was pleasantly surprised by, was the way this particular obsession plays out within the narrative.

Although this connection is never drawn explicitly in the text, to my memory (oh, and, uh, spoilers to follow, I suppose, though some probably preceded as well), it just so happens that when Fiona does start murdering people, there is a distinct orality to the way she goes about it. She plans to murder one boy by eating a bunch of Snickers, then kissing him with a mouth full of the peanuts to which he's deathly allergic; she constantly carries around roofies to dispatch unwanted advances; and there's, well, something weird going on with cigarettes.

One of Fiona's first dates is killed by Sean when he steps outside for a cigarette, and it is after that that she begins to uncover his secret, and advance the plot. Sean is also a smoker, and the climactic moment of the novel, when Sean is getting sloppy and is about to be caught, involves Fiona filling Sean's apartment with gas and taking off, allowing the explosion sparked by him lighting a cigarette kill him. And then she smokes one of his cigarettes, staring at his burned building.

It's a pretty hackneyed moment, as most smoking-as-metaphor moments tend to be, and it's described with (if I'm remembering correctly) vaguely annoying descriptions of how she's ingesting his essence, or something, but there's something else there, too. Because that list of things that he hates Hello Kitty for not being able to do, aren't exactly things she does a whole lot of herself. She doesn't fuck, or give head. She certainly thinks of telling people to go fuck their mother often enough, but she doesn't ever say it. She drinks sometimes, and eats, but it's always in the context of a man, and so a murder being plotted. There is even a moment where she recounts an uncle attempting to molest her, which she fended off, not with a bite, but a fork. Even the date she intended to kill with a kiss ends up crushing himself with a barbell, avoiding the need for her mouth at all.

Fiona's moment with the cigarette, for all she tries to make it a symbolic gesture to evoke Sean, is, I think, the only moment in the whole text where it really matters that she has a mouth at all. Through the rest of it, what's important is that other people have mouths; those are how she gets power over them. And the thrust of making the smoke symbolic is precisely that it takes away her own power, opens her to being invaded by Sean. Getting a mouth makes her vulnerable.

Vulnerability is, of course, a major theme throughout the text. Fiona goes to great lengths to explain that just because she's a lawyer doesn't mean that she's in charge; in fact, her job consists mostly, according to her, of bending before the whims of the partner she works for, and she characterizes him as a real asshole. She is constantly being stepped on, whether by an overbearing boss or her parents, and she exorcises it with more exhibitions of vulnerability, as when she explains that she wears 4-inch Jimmy Choo heels everywhere because of the pain they cause her, and likens it to foot binding. It is made very clear that those things which purport to provide autonomy are really just ways of fostering new dependencies.

This is, I think, and to make a sort of crude rhetorical move, the point of the whole sociopathic narrative. Capitalism gives you two options: play the game, or play the fucking game. Fiona's aspirational diatribes against her heritage and fashion porn fetish-lists aren't evidence of a lack of character, they're how she stays alive. Traditions require space to develop; interiority needs time. And those are two things that you can have, sure, in direct proportion to how often you're willing to not eat. And when you finally realize how fucked over you're getting, and decide to protest against it, your protests are just as conditioned by those two options, else you're shit out of luck. You can play the game, like Fiona has been doing, of private pain, in a crypto-foot binding procedure, or you can play the fucking game, like Sean does, learn to act like those who put money over everything, and prey on people who can barely even play the game in the first place. There's no out, no middle ground, because that's where we all already are, passively abetting a system of exploitation. You can infantilize yourself, you can murder quasi-discriminately, or you can pretend neither of those things are happening while you feed them.

I feel like I'm pretty far away, at this point, from anything resembling a "review." I'll try, for the rest of this, to step back a bit and shut the fuck up about things I want to think about, and end with a couple of relatively brief points, that are a bit more review-y.

Most descriptions of the novel, whether positive, negative, or neutral, are fond of throwing around the word satire. The question they all beg, in their own way, is of course, "of what?" And almost uniformly, they seem to say without saying, being Chinese American. But that seems like bullshit to me, and it taints all the reviews with moralism. Now, I came into this book reading it as Asian American Literature, so what I'm about to say may not be all that surprising, but here it is: in my estimation, if this book is a satire of anything, it's of Asian American Literature.

I have no idea how familiar Choi is with the Asian American Literature canon (insofar as that even exists), but for what I want to say it doesn't really matter. I do think that the tradition she's working in is a lot more Chuck Palahniuk than Frank Chin, but the fact that it's so often likened to Amy Tan is more than enough context for me to feel justified in what I'm trying to say.

One thing that's fairly easy to notice about this book - and I mean book, like the physical object, not novel - is how similar the author's bio is to the story we're reading. Choi's a 30 year old Chinese American ex-lawyer with a parakeet; Fiona a 28 year old Chinese American Lawyer with a parakeet. They're both from San Francisco. Choi's official author bio even says that she "refuses to be anyone’s ... hole-in-a-mattress," a phrase that Fiona uses in the novel.

It is a fact about most, or all, marginal literatures, especially those of ethnic minorities, that they get pigeonholed into a sort of native informer role, and that this means they are heavily stilted toward memoir. White people like Amy Tan because they can read her and feel like they understand the Authentic Chinese Experience, without ever having to interact with a Chinese person. Even something as weird as Maxine Hong Kingston's debut novel, Woman Warrior, gets saddled with the subtitle "Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts." Woman Warrior seems to draw on experience, certainly, but it's sure as fuck not a memoir.

So Choi's ability to keep the specter of memoir foregrounded, even though there is nothing in the text of the novel to support it, and all while distancing herself from it, is relatively interesting in this context. But it is also sort of something that's been done to death. Kip Fulbeck's Paper Bullets: A Fictional Autobiography makes a similar move in the title, and is a book I did not have a whole lot of love for; Suki Kim's The Interpreter is another example, and one which I would much more unreservedly recommend, as is Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker or even more borderline stuff like Pamela Lu's Pamela: A Novel. Memoirs like Jane Jeong Trenka's Language of Blood trouble this equation from the other side, and do so with absolutely breathtaking beauty.

My point, I suppose, more than that Choi's book functions to deconstruct how Asian American Literature is supposed to function, is that you should probably be reading more Asian American Literature, because there's some fucking incredible shit out there.

And I guess the last thing I want to say, to make this seem like a real review, like I'm really a real reviewer, the kind of guy who you should trust to tell you whether or not to spend your hard-earned dollars on a book, I guess as that guy I want to say, yeah I would recommend you read this book, but while you do it, keep the two songs below in mind, and think about it as if it had been written with them in mind, and how fucking cool that would be.

*The point, though, is that she's misread this way daily, and this misreading creates its own power, which gets transformed into ammunition for noxious stereotypes, and there is an effectiveness to fighting that misreading on its own terms.