An Asian Appreciation of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

the-sellout

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a funny, clever, topical novel, and it’s easy to see why it won the Man Booker Prize (I say that as if I’m fully aware of the criteria when I’m not) and the hearts of critics. It’s so clever that I don’t think my tiny brain, the same one that enjoyed it, might not be able to explain what it’s about, although my brain knows very well that it is satirizing a reality that is completely worthy of a superb novelist’s satirizing. In this case, it’s racism in America by way of a black man bringing segregation back in the fictional, erased-off-the-map town of Dickens.

There are complaints about the supposedly obscure references in the novel, and there are indeed a handful of esoteric pop culture artifacts tossed about, but there are also a lot of highly recognizable ones. Making these references, though, lets the author drive his point across more effectively than if he were just telling the story of a poor black man who suffers slurs and discrimination in his place, in the bus on his way to work or wherever. And if a reference is obscure, it’s funny anyway mostly because of the way it’s such brilliant, funny writing.

Reading the novel is like being told jokes you’ve heard a very funny person tell that you don’t really get but laugh at anyway. There are bits about blacks-inspired software with a word processor that has font called Tumbuktu and Harlem Renaissance. Distressed black women complain about unequal treatment of angry women: “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society… Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your weave!” It throws jabs at Mexicans, Indians, the Chinese. You don’t have to be there to get the joke is what I’m saying, I guess.

Also, no one is safe. Not Dave Eggers, not Hootie and the Blowfish, not the TV show Friends, not Madonna, not ESPN, not the authors of literary classics and the white men who chose them. It’s so clever that at certain points, I thought the author might make a meta-comment about the Caucasian book critics who are fascinated by the author’s undeniable genius, the same ones that appear on the book’s blurb pages. But nope, the author mercifully held back.

Perhaps it’s the Americans who would find this very, very funny because satire about the social reality that is racism will always be great material for comedy and they’re right in the middle of where the action is. But to Asians who might get only some of the more obvious pop culture references, the novel still comes off as hilarious because this is not the first time we find out about discrimination. It’s quite familiar to us, in fact. It also pokes fun at people who frequently use the word “plethora”.

The Sellout is a sharp and funny (it bears repeating) reminder that modern America can’t help but practice its old habits, and our minority-belonging couldn’t help but chuckle even if it’s in a satirical novel about racism in the USA, and more importantly because of this The Great Gatsby that you have to read the novel to understand the context of because I won’t explain it:

“Real talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off ever since.” 

It features funny racism satire things featuring Latinos and Asians, too. The hilariousness in that is universal, and laughing with a novel is a reading experience I will always cherish.

Advertisements

Books, Book-Buying, Reading, Reading Plans 2017

It is unsurprising to find out that as you grow older and less prone to delusions of youthfulness, the number of books you read gradually decreases. I used to average 35 a year, but when I moved to Bangkok, this number shrank to 19 in 2015 and 23 last year. The reason for this is obvious: it’s because I moved to Bangkok where book-buying is not that fun (anything you could think of having, you can have, which is not a thrilling way to obtain books). Here’s a fun fact: Metro Manila is where you want to be if you want to meet reading goals. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Metro Manila is ruled by forces that make commuting such a hellacious daily experience that you’re often left with no choice but to find solace in reading. Bangkok is not ruled by those forces.

The decreased number of books read could mean any of the following: other forms of entertainment enjoyed and a life well-lived outside of a book. It could mean your museums-visited or movies-seen lists have increased. In my case, though, TV took the place of reading time. After a day’s work, I usually find that the only sensible thing to do at home is watch drag queens outsmart fellow drag queens in a race to win $100,000 and a sickening supply of cosmetics.

Because of this, I’ve decided to start reading anything I lay my hands on, in my room, as long as it’s a reading material; enough with sniffing the pages and on to actually reading them. I’ll stop doing what I do which is pick up any of the David Mitchells off the shelf, softly whisper to myself, ‘I’ll read you next’ and then pick up Ciara, my phone, to check Twitter and not tweet, or tweet and decide 10 minutes later that the tweet is stupid and should be deleted.

In a way, I blame Hanya Yanagihara for last year’s short list. ‘A Little Life’ was a two-month read and it demanded all the attention I could give a novel, which made reading another novel seem impractical. I blame Jude. But if you can find the time to read it, I highly recommend it.

I’ve only read 21 books in 2016 despite having many off periods – periods when big novels could have reasonably been accommodated. During one of these periods, I dived into Anne Rice’s ‘Prince Lestat’ and expected it to be a quickish read, but its character-dumping prevented me from finishing fast. I heard the sequel is even more insane and more infuriating, if the GoodReads reviewers are to be trusted (they are not to be trusted). I can’t wait.

I might read even fewer books this year and that would be alright. Maybe that won’t be alright. To read as much as I can used to be such a powerful goal of mine. It’s not anymore. Life feels shorter and shorter each reading year. For me, in my life, that means no more Guillermo Del Toro vampire novels.

prince-lestat

When Anne Rice announced on Facebook sometime in 2013-14 that Lestat was talking to her again, we the Peoples of the Page went into raptures because we like Lestat, and we like it very much when Lestat takes over her Facebook page. Lestat of course chooses Facebook because in social media, he writes novellas, not status updates. Status updates are for mortals like Anne Rice.

In 2014, Chronicle #11 was released, almost a decade after Anne swore off writing about the Vampire Chronicles vampires again. But here we are, back in the ‘savage garden’, thanks to Lestat’s refusal to not ever be in the spotlight. Anyone who has read at least 1 or 11 Vampire Chronicles knows one undeniable fact: A brat gets what a brat wants.

In Prince Lestat she readies the world for this new era where vampires have inhabited the world in their own terms; that means no more silly Ten Commandments-style rules (see: The Vampire Armand). She offers an explanation for what has happened thus far and a mini-reference guide to vampire jargon. The way to let everyone in to this new vampire, it seems, is to over-explain. This goes well with Lestat’s newfound swagger of being current and his intention to leave the doors to the vampire world wide open.

Despite his preference for fashion that kids today would find daffy, Lestat is nothing but open to new experiences. Such experiences include using an iPhone, emailing, listening to podcasts, becoming a baby daddy, and leading a pack of bloodsuckers whose combined strength, knowledge, and mind and fire gifts could not hold a candle to his magnetism, impulsiveness, and questionable but indispensable leadership. There is not a thing in Prince Lestat that I find hard to believe.

There is also a sense of vampires having become citizens of the world, peacefully coexisting with humans who still believe them to be a figment of their fevered imagination (despite Benji’s very convincing vampire broadcasts). Humans who drop dead in alleys are still believed to be victims of cardiac arrest rather than of vampires’ insatiable appetite. The world is at peace where the undead are alive and well but staying low-key.

But all is truly not well in the vampire world. A capital M mysterious voice is sowing fear in the non-beating hearts of immortals, and to calm their inactive nerves they summon the one immortal who can save them from themselves. “The Voice” is whispering to vampire ears everywhere – and they are not sweet nothings – with the weak ones falling prey to the seemingly motiveless voice that admonishes mass murder among their kind. Because the book is not called ‘Prince Louis’ or ‘King Armand’, it’s the brat prince himself who takes over vampires-saving duties. Whether he would do so competently is open to discussion.

Anne Rice wasn’t going to return to The Vampire Chronicles half-heartedly. Here, she brings every character that has ever appeared in all 10 books and their ghosts. Quinn Blackwood, Merrick, and the Mayfairs were, sadly, no-shows.

As with any book from TVC, Prince Lestat was not spared some biting criticisms, one of which is the inclusion of characters that don’t serve any purpose but to prolong the vampiric conversations. As a person of the page, ie, long-time reader/Lestat groupie, I expect these supposed failings, but I can’t say that I enjoyed reading about vampires sit around describing each other’s extraordinary beauty. I already know that Louis, Armand, Jesse, David, et al beat the entire vampire and human race in beauty, thanks Ms. Anne.

Another gripe against Prince Lestat is its wordiness – as if a Vampire Chronicle devoted to the magnificence of Lestat would be made in less than 200 pages? The prose is as indulgent as it has ever been, and I myself find this supposed crime indefensible. The thing is, this isn’t Anne Rice’s first, second or 22nd book. If you’ve read the entire Chronicles and everything else in her bibliography, then this is something you could smell from a mile away. If you want taut and quick-paced, re-read The Tale of the Body Thief. No sane reader of TVC, new or old, should pick up an Anne Rice novel and expect littleness, whether in theme, scope, or characterization.

The thrill I got from reading Lestat, though, came mostly from the meta-commentaries on the author’s previous work, specifically the ‘deep current psychological observation that united these works’. Also thrilling is vampires dabbling into science. It’s amazing they haven’t tried going into space to become the greatest astronauts the earth has ever known. One thing that stood out, in the worst possible way was the prince’s sudden change of heart for The Voice. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the way he embraces it after everything is such silly bullshit. Everyone knows Lestat is a brat and he’ll do and love as he pleases, but that sudden change of heart made the lead-up to the semi-thrilling confrontation seem inconsequential.

Unlike other readers who feel personally betrayed by Lestat’s lunatic decisions (actual responsible person: Lestat’s ghost author Anne Rice) who swear off reading any more future vampire tales, I’ll stay hooked. With this renewed interest in Lestat, there will be no end in sight for vampires and their vivid, hyper-indulgent chronicles. They may be using iPhones now, but they’re still the same old brood of blood-hungry beauties who like to sleep in the dirt. Like the series they belong to, they know their place in the world and they’ll live in it as they please.

How to Trick Your Single Man Self into Saving Money

somewhere

The life of a single man is filled with hardships. It is a life that refuses to recognize satiation. Faced with such hardship, how must a single man cope?

It’s simple – pretend you’re the father of four. Adopt the mindset of a daddy. Pretend to have fathered not one but four precious children. They may not all actually be precious, but as your children they must believe they are.

Essential to this pretense is ridding yourself of fatherly pleasures – drinks at a bar, Cuban cigars, fine wines, and other daddy pleasures you could think of. As a father of four, these pleasures ought to be banished from your mind and have, in its place, the children’s food, clothing and tuition that you will pretend you’re paying for all by yourself because your wife left you for another woman. Rid of all these, you’re on your way to having the fattest single man savings account.

Also essential to this is having a stable job, and also discipline and a powerful imagination. You may be pretending to be a father but you should never not want nothing. But since you are, in fact, a thirty-something single man, you have no trouble imagining what it’s like to be a father of four. It’s just the sort of thing you that consumes you, having no children to kiss goodnight, which is not as sad as it sounds.

You could give yourself a vice or two so that the father you imagine yourself to be isn’t someone who’s living in total unlivability, which could render the fantasy overwhelmingly horror-filled. The vice could be a gym membership (tell your self that the kids will benefit from having a fit dad), books (you want your kids to be readers), or dolls – but just one.

First of all, your kids should not be toddlers. You are not supposed to be a happy father who had just experienced the joys of fatherhood, but, rather, the hooys! of fatherhood. You should be experiencing the kind of fatherhood that involves lots of shouting and, when the children are all full-grown (no one below 16), actual shouting matches that embarrass the next door neighbors whose thin walls are especially built to hear you. What you should be is a father who is so bitter at having forsaken cigars and brandies over having to raise four precious kiddies. You’re a father who knows real resentment. Be the daddy who doesn’t take kindly to people using the word ‘resentment’ lightly.

Your eldest first child is an artistic child who doesn’t really have artistic tendencies. There will be some bursts of creativity in this child but it will soon be suppressed by the slow but eventual gravitation towards a life of artlessness. First-borns are either destined for greatness or become the family’s greatest downfall. The details shouldn’t have to matter because your first-born is, by default, a big deal. This is the child for which plenty of your resources should have been spent. It is the child for which you had to sell your collection of belt buckles because the first child had to have piano lessons and attend a ‘basketball clinic’. The first child must have had some daffy lessons taught him so that he could become a prodigy. This child grows up becoming the kind of child who adores the song, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy, which is not at all a sign of downfall.

The second child raised a true and alarming sense of panic. It’s the child that, at first, you can’t believe has happened… but did.

The third and fourth child do not grow up to be interesting teens, much less, adults. They have interests, sure, but giving them quirks or personalities won’t be necessary; they only need to exist. Just having two more children when having two mouths to feed has already proven to be an insurmountable commitment, not to mention, an awful of lot of people to send to college. Your actually single self shouldn’t have to comprehend the complexities of this scary scenario, but imagine the savings if you commit to this fantasy!

Then, you can go back to your single self, heave a sigh of relief that you’re the father of no one, with a savings account that needs work but which doesn’t have to be spent on milk and tuition unless it’s you who need them.

Create Your Own Adventure in Taipei

fullsizeoutput_8b6

You are not guaranteed to have an interesting time when you visit Taipei. Your plane will arrive on time, a pleasant-looking, English-speaking guard will help you use the bus ticket vending machine, and the bus you will hop on to will have extremely comfortable seats where you will view Taoyuan’s gloomy cityscape. You will feel like pressing play on your iPod’s baby-making playlist because the weather demands it. Whitney Houston’s ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go’ might seem like a divine idea but Alicia Keys’s ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ will be a more inspired choice.

It will be cold but not oppressively so. You will be surrounded by attractive couples snuggling up to each other because there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

It will be an uneventful hour-long ride from the airport to the main city, but you can make it more interesting when you get off at Taipei Main Station where you will wait for a cab, which is a great place to start a scene. In the waiting area you will notice that some people will have the same idea of spicing up their Taipei stay. A Caucasian male could turn up out of nowhere and steal your cab, and then get upset when the cab inches forward because the cabbie realizes he’s blocking traffic. There is just the slightest possibility that said male will be doing this not out of a sense of entitlement, but due to an encounter that no one but himself knows about, unless he decides to let everyone know what an awful time he had just had involving a flight attendant and an accidentally spilled coffee. For two minutes, you will be fascinated by his outrage, but you will see the next cab ready to take you and you will forget about this upset male.

fullsizeoutput_8c1

You can make your first cab ride special neglecting to look up or remember the address of your hotel and behaving like a clueless tourist who opens himself up to victimization. If this happens, spend some time later in bed to thank Jesus and Jesus’s Daddy the Taiwanese are not the scamming kind. Taiwanese cab drivers have smartphones and they will look up your hotel’s address and might not show any sign of annoyance. They expect this sort of behavior and they have the decency to not let your carelessness affect their aura of professionalism.

While the cab driver checks her phone for your hotel’s location, you shall not utter a word because doing so will be fruitless as she does not speak English and anything you say will just be noise, an unwanted series of blubbering sounds that will drown out the Taiwanese pop on the radio that sounds so much more pleasant than your gibberish. You will spend the next 15 minutes marveling at your capacity for touristy neglect. It might not make for a great conversation fodder but, sometimes, a forgotten-hotel-address story is all you can ever have. You should not have nothing.

At a busy time as New Year’s Eve, all hotels and motels will put up a “No Vacancy” sign and will be unwilling to take latecomers. This is yet another opportunity to create some excitement. Four-star hotels will always be willing to make room for you, but why choose comfort when you can book an equally expensive hotel with a spectacular view of corrugated tin roofs?

Your idea of Taiwanese food will consist of noodles and good chicken but these will be hard to find when you get to a district like Zongshan where you will realize that there are more Japanese, Korean, McDonalds and KFCs lined up in the streets than noodle houses and colorful and probably filthy, flavorful, filling street food. You could settle for a random restaurant that serves a youthful clientele and proffers self-serve beer and rice stations. Choose a restaurant that, in place of a proper menu, offers “expert meal suggestions”, which you might have to brace yourself for weirdness, but could end up raving about the rest of the night. This could turn out to be the best-tasting meal you will ever have for the duration of your stay, but you will want some sort of self-torment, with the encouragement of willing companions, by not going to the same place and trying other food.

Due to a sense of adventure, you will find yourself sipping ‘Honey Black Tea’ that will taste like sewage. When you describe this beverage as ‘equal to sewer water in taste’, it will not only be because you’re obnoxious. Your companions might not know that your intentions are pure by warning them about this sewage-tasting tea.

You will wise up and choose a pizza place for your next meal and this place will wipe your sewage-sipping tasting tears away with their excellent-tasting peach iced tea (with real, live peaches) freshly picked from the rooftop peachyard.

Bars will be open until late and the bartender will serve you the warmth of a scotch and a conversation. You will feel like abusing this warmth because it will get cold very fast. There will be trips to memorial halls, night markets and Chinese temples, but you might want to experience, more than anything, the 24-hour bookstore. In Eslite Bookstore, you will see a bunch of college guys sleeping and who doesn’t like the sight of that?

It will take all of your willpower not to snuggle up next to the sleeping dudes who wisely pick the Architecture & Design section as their dozing area. The feeling this bookstore incites in a person is similar to the feeling incited by viral TV commercials where a young person grows up to be a doctor because when he was 9, a stranger gave his sick father soup because the boy and his father are dirt poor. I’m not sure how that relates to the boys sleeping in the bookstore but both scenarios are warm and inviting. All I know is, that is how a bookstore should be.

We Need to Get Our Friends Back

Lily James and Bella Heathcote in Screen Gems' PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

Their social media personas seem to have been taken over by monsters who took away all the fun out of our friends’ posts and their capacity to share Oatmeal comics and Buzzfeed listicles that used to bring joy into our life. Now our friends in social media share only dark, disturbing discourses about geopolitics and narcotics, seemingly bedazzled by the genius of their statements on the latest ‘insanity’, ‘idiocy’, ‘inanity’ of world politics. Where have the how- to-make tiramisu videos gone? Where did the Starbucks posts go?!

We don’t have to demand from these monsters to stop talking about what’s happening in the world. It’s good that some of them are doing it and enlightening those who have, at this bleak time in social media, chosen the path of complete silence. Even though we need our friends back, some of our friends do seem, thankfully, uncorrupted by said monsters and manage to post things that don’t get in everyone’s nerves. They remain sensible in what is shaping up to be one of Philippine social media’s darkest moments.

But it’s too late for some of our friends who have succumbed to the allure of seeing their obnoxiousness attract engagement from folks with similar inclination.

Some friends of ours might even try to provoke/compel/trick you into coming out of voluntary silence and contribute to all that racket. These are friends that might even tag you and ask you to change your profile photo to that of a sunflower in protest of … something. Whatever happens, don’t allow yourself to be bullied into thinking you have to contribute to the noise. Any time you feel like adding to all the drama, think about whether what you’re about to say will add anything of substance. Think about the fun gifs of cats you could be posting instead. Post those instead, why don’t you.

We really need to get our friends back. Make social media fun again.

Where I Was When the King Died

Photographers, spectators and mourners at the Grand Palace
Photographers, spectators and mourners at the Grand Palace

I was at a newly opened chichi Italian-French restaurant called La Casa Nostra when the official announcement was made. On my way there, people on the MRT were noticeably extra-attentive to their phones. That has always been how people behave in Bangkok trains, ie, glued to their phone, but on that afternoon the air was thick with worry, anticipation and grief.

La Casa Nostra is one of those restaurants that are annoyingly dim. The lighting is so minimal that you would have to squint your eyes to read the menu, and when the food arrives you’ll have to use your phone’s backlight to see if your food is as you ordered it. The restaurant’s design calls attention to its classiness and for a brief moment, I considered roaming around as there were only a few customers. That night, though, it was impossible to think about anything other than what Twitter already knew at least 3-4 hours in advance.

The staff were wearing all black but it could have been their normal uniform. I was halfway through my meal when Richard Barrow tweeted the inevitable. I was ready to be ushered out of the restaurant and be told to go home and respect the people’s mourning. I had expected a lot of unrealistic scenarios upon the announcement. I expected most of the staff to break into tears and kindly show the customers out, but even more people came in. The photographer who was taking photos of the neatly lined wine glasses on the bar counter seemed unmoved – a true professional. Despite the room’s dimness, we saw a waitress break into tears. Customers were not asked to leave but were left alone with their meal.

The king’s death reminded me of Cory Aquino’s death. I remember the collective sadness that swept the Philippines when she died. That was before the country was divided into ‘yellows’ and ‘rainbows’ (hindi yellow), which let the observance of her burial be peaceful and free from the ugly taint of politics. But that couldn’t possibly be the same as what just happened to the people of Thailand. They have just lost a king, the only one they’ve ever known and revered in their lifetime.

As foreigners, we are expected to behave in a strictly respectful manner during this period when the country is experiencing its greatest sorrow. That means refraining from engaging in any festive activities. Smiling in public might even be frowned upon. Black shirts should probably not contain any unsavory graphic.

It’s not uncommon to see expats expressing their sympathies online, although there are those that can’t be bothered. And because people want to know things, they are probably asking themselves and others like themselves these questions: Am I supposed to demonstrate full-on commiseration or should I take it easy with the sympathies? When going to Tesco, should I wear black or should I save those for the malls and office?

The last thing an expat would want to be seen as is unsympathetic, although it must be said, failure to show an aura of being deep in sorrow won’t likely to get one in trouble as long as the line between nonchalant and disrespectful isn’t crossed. It wouldn’t be outrageous to think that some expats are feeling the need to be extra-sympathetic and may be compelled to overdo it. They are in a very safe place. At a time like this, one never knows of one is in the company of a mourner who would look down on your refusal or inability to wear black. Some might not be too concerned about what color garment you wear, but some might be too concerned.