Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: "The Dead Do Not Improve" by Jay Caspian Kang

Jay Caspian Kang's The Dead Do Not Improve is a trippy, kaleidoscopic adventure through San Francisco, with a misanthropic wanna-be writer as its protagonist, and surfing cops, advanced creative writing students possibly with murderous intentions, infamous street protestors, and others along for the ride. It is part murder mystery, part love story, part commentary on our fame- and internet-obsessed society, and part, well, I'm not sure.

Phillip Kim is a disaffected wanna-be writer who scams his way through his job at an internet support site for men going through tough break-ups. One night, his odd neighbor, aging hippie Dolores Stone (whom he refers to as "The Baby Molester") is killed when she is shot through the window of her apartment. Phillip, who was sleeping during the murder, only finds out about it the next day when Googling himself, and discovers that Dolores was a far more complex person than he even knew. Somehow, Phillip becomes a suspect in Dolores' death (and a subsequent murder) and also a target in an elaborate scheme. He's being pursued by surfing hippie cop Siddhartha "Keanu" Finch (who has more than enough problems of his own) and his partner, Jim Kim, who both run into their own obstacles along the way. And while all of this is happening, Phillip finds himself falling in love.

If the description of this book sounds disjointed and confusing, it's because it doesn't quite follow a linear literary pattern. Jay Caspian Kang has created a vivid cast of complex characters, most of whom aren't what you think they are at first glance, and he takes all of them on a roller coaster ride of an adventure. This book is a little like something by David Foster Wallace (minus the footnotes) with even a little Dave Eggers thrown in for good measure. And while the multiple narrators, pop culture references, surfing lingo, and meditations on ethnic stereotypes may derail the story from time to time, there are flashes of brilliance in this story. There's so much going on at the same time, I found myself utterly confused, but I know that when the book ended, I felt like I had read something completely unexpected.

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