A funny, terrifying, and ultimately, honestly depressing book.
Ingrid Yang, the protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in her lack of self-awareness, which is part of the comedy and horror. She clearly hates her work as a PhD student working on the oeuvre of a Chinese-American poet that she really doesn’t care for and her bland fiancé is clearly a manipulative douche (Hong’s recent Minor Feelings identified his type, as the sort of middling white guy who has found that racism enables him to find an Asian partner who is much more attractive than he could otherwise ensnare). However, she only barely recognizes any of this.
The novel, which I feel is secretly a horror story, is about her understanding that her whole existence has been gaslit by white men.
It was inspired by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting a poem under the name of an Asian woman: Yi-Fen Chou. Chou, in addition to being author’s name, is also the name of the Chinese-American poet in the novel, who turns out to be a white guy who actually indulged is ‘yellowface’ disguise to teach at her university for years.
The whole thing gets worse and worse, with her sinophilic (white) advisor having actually known and conspired in the deception, before turning into a demented Tucker Carlson-esque figure with his own MAGA style movement (DOFO – Defense of Freedom Organization) to protect the feelings of white people.
Chou (the author of this novel) stays true to the story’s movement in that it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not unhappy, but essentially, the bad guys win, which feels kind of unhappy.
The publishers also did this thing where you had to flip to book around, relative to the orientation of its cover, in order to read it. I get the metaphor (‘disorientation’) but really could have done without that. The book is good enough on its own.
Despite some half hearted references to other cultures, this book is distinctly aimed at America. While I agree with much of its premise (which is more about assumptions of merit; that those who more deserve it, while those who have less are intrinsically inferior, because they lacked the necessary merit), I was made hesitant early on by his relatively uncritical acceptance of Weber’s famed Protestant work ethic as a sort of modern source (though he also notes earlier, also biblically inspired ideas about meritocracy).
My fascination with Thomas Jefferson got a jolt when he compared the introduction of the SAT to Jefferson’s idea of providing education to America’s ‘natural aristocracy.’ In Jefferson’s view, small, local schools would exist in part to unearth the small number of geniuses from among the ‘rubbish.’ Conant, the man who came up with the SAT, also wanted to find those select few. It was never intended to expand access, but only to find what Jefferson would happily would have agreed was his natural aristocracy.
Solutions are few and far between, but I don’t ask Sandel to be Rawls (who, incidentally, gets a minor, but definite, raking over proverbial coals). And I liked his idea of changing college admissions to a modified lottery process. For example, a competitive Ivy League university will get tens of thousands of applicants, something more, or at least close, to half of which can be reasonably considered to be qualified and otherwise equipped to succeed there. Take that number and give out acceptances based on a lottery. I like it. The book as a whole, however, feels like it somehow fell short. The analysis goes into depth on issues, but always feels like it pulls back and doesn’t go all the way in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Thomas Jefferson was frequently accused of being an atheist (I tend towards those who suppose him to be a particularly secular Deist), but usually avoided commitment and included references to God (or someone similar) in his writings, particular the more or less public (I have been reading so much 18th century English writing that I almost spelled that ‘publick’) ones. An obvious example is the capital C Creator referenced in The Declaration of Independence. Read more
Gentle reader, you have no doubt noticed that I am a fool for a new take on Thomas Jefferson, one that dodges standard biography. This one dodges so far as not to be sure what to make of itself.
It is sort of a history of the founding University of Virginia; sort of history of education in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime; and sort of a collection of anecdotes of Jeffersonianisms, towards the end of compiling an unsystematic intellectual biography of the planter philosopher. And a surprising quantity of text devoted to Jefferson’s extended family, hangers on, and the financial ruin of his family.
You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.
On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.
On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.
Takeaway quote (from the religion section):
It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.
I suppose my eyes passed too quickly over the extended title because when I came to the end, I was surprised to see this was intended for part of instruction at the Jefferson founded University of Virginia, which he intended to include instruction in Anglo-Saxon as part of its curriculum.
I have not Jefferson’s apparent talent for picking up languages, but I remember reading about him harassing the supposed translator of Ossian for the original Gaelic texts (who always put him off because, of course, they didn’t exist).
I almost purchased a recent book about the University and its Jeffersonian founding, but better, I thought, to keep reading what the man himself wrote than what others have written about him, having read enough of the latter in recent years.
The Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, also know as the Freer/Sackler, is one of my favorite museums. Not only is it directly by the Smithsonian metro station, but it is less crowded than many other museums on the National Mall and has some of the best spots for quiet contemplation you are likely to find.
After almost two years closed for renovations, the galleries are finally open. The grand celebration was called Illuminasia. Lots of cool stuff for the kids and some lovely music and some frustratingly long lines for food (the bao was excellent, but not worth the thirty minute wait).
There’s a nice exhibit on cats in ancient Egypt and a genuinely inspiring exhibit called ‘Encountering the Buddha’ that I can’t wait to see again.
On a recent Sunday, I visited the Holocaust Museum with some friends. It was only my second visit and just as sad and moving as the first time; it’s hard not to feel tears welling up at various junctures.
The Holocaust, as a historical event, is sui generis. It is not there to be our metaphor. It is too singular.
But good God, it is simply impossible to visit that museum and see the history and artifacts leading up to the Holocaust being possible and not think about the terrible act, the bigoted act, the ignorant act, the base act, the racist act undertaken by our president.
And he is our president. He is my president. Whatever good I may do in my life, I will also always be, in some part, complicit in whatever evil my country does, especially when it takes place during my lifetime.
In another tragedy, an acquaintance of my mine is a student, studying here on a student visa. The terms of her visa require her to leave the United States every so often (every six months is a common condition of many visas), but she is from one of Trump’s designated countries. She doesn’t know whether to hurry away now and return by judicial stays can be overturned or to wait and hope that things get better. I don’t know either and all my advice to her tastes likes ashes because I am complicit.
The Michael Derrick Hudson debacle has been embarrassing. I love poetry and advocate for it to my friends and co-workers, but when this sort of garbage is what gets it into the news… well, it ain’t good.
Nicely puts to bed the lie of some kind of supposed advantage that poets of color have in getting published and respected. Shouldn’t need to be said, because it doesn’t take much looking to figure out that published poets in America are largely white and male.
At Stanford, a white girl (well-meaning, of course) wrote a story about a Chinese American woman living in modern-day San Francisco (this was the early 2000s) who wanted to marry a white guy but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Chinese man and it was called The Dim Sum of All Things. (Laugh now, cry later!) I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say the reality of that story was fucked and so was the fantasy. She got into a highly coveted advanced fiction writing class taught by a famous writer and I didn’t. The story I submitted was also about Chinese Americans living in modern-day America, but it didn’t involve arranged marriage or dim sum or sensuous descriptions of chopsticks. This didn’t mean the teacher made a wrong choice. He made a subjective choice.