BOOK REVIEW On boxes and coming out of them
Slant confronts the uncomfortable truths of sexuality, race, and beauty
By Timothy Wang
Slant, the debut novel of MIT graduate Timothy Wang, tells the story of James, a gay Asian MIT undergrad. Immediately our minds start to categorize: He is gay and he is Asian, a double minority. Of course, there is more to a person than his sexuality and his race, yet somehow in the world we live in, we often find ourselves boxed along these broad lines. Add age and beauty (the skin-deep kind), and the world’s judgment on the person is very nearly delivered. This is what Slant deals with. It is not so much a story of coming out, or coming of age, or simply coming (ahem!) as it is a story of coming to terms.
Caught between worlds, James is a true minority even among Asians: “In college, American-born Chinese looked down on me since I wasn’t born in the USA … The fresh-off-the-boat ones ignored me because I didn’t care whether Taiwan or Tibet were a part of China … in their nationalistic fervor, they thought the Chinese invented everything from soccer to pizza.” He constantly fears judgment from the local populace as being either nerdy, gay, or Asian, and through the course of the story learns to deal with his insecurities and find equilibrium. The story follows his dating Stan, an attractive barista, his first experience with drugs and unprotected sex, and their eventual break-up. Then comes the pain and the efforts to win Stan back, even if it means using his new boyfriend Michael as a means to that end.
The friction with his parents, whom he finds too cheap, whose care he thinks overbearing, and whose single-mindedness he thinks ruthless, constantly plays in the background. Yet when his life has sunk to quite the nadir, he redeems himself. In a slightly dramatic ending, James comes to terms with all — with Stan, with Michael, with his parents, and most of all with himself. James has arrived.
Slant does not care much about political correctness, and that is its strength. Our hero is not always the most lovable. He rants against discriminations and prejudices against him, and yet feels free to apply them to others. Throughout the course of the tale, there are instances of candid bile, the likes of which are quite unusual in everyday literature. About the lavish décor of Michael’s home, he says, “I fought my genetic urge to ask how much; it’d be rude to white people.” About not winning a stripping contest: “Obviously I wasn’t fucking white.” About age: “Forty year old guys skipped around in Capri pants, blissfully ignoring the desperation conveyed by their fashion statement.”
The main protagonists of our stories are of course allowed human frailties, yet a streak of something noble sets them apart and makes them into heroes. Here lies James’ nobility: he always evaluates himself with same harshness as he judges others. Even before he finally comes to terms with himself, he confronts cultural prerogatives and the reason why he is a “potato queen” (a gay Asian man who prefers to interact only with Caucasians). Even as he conspires to cheat Michael out of $6000 for an eye-widening surgery on the pretext of his mother’s illness, he is conscious of the “scheming bitch” he has turned into. Hope is never lost for him and at the end he does find grace.
Stylistically, Wang’s writing sometimes comes across a bit contrived and drab, despite the profusion of colorful phrases (“I felt claustrophobic — like a trapped rabbit uncertain whether it would end up as the companion to a seven year old girl or the main course at a French brasserie.”). The text is peppered with James’s “scientific” ploys for winning back Stan, and the descriptions of even intimate moments are sometimes a bit too clinical. The author has a certain tendency to overuse mood and atmosphere-setters, and the correlation of climatic conditions with the mood of the story is a bit too perfect. A word too about the quality of the production — in my copy of the novel, there were numerous typos and grammatical errors. And while they are perhaps simple proofreading errors, they do detract from the narrative and may irk a more fastidious reader.
Recently, a new art exhibition about the Asian-American experience and identity opened in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Speaking of a particular exhibit, associate curator Frank Goodyear said, “There’s a tension here between belonging and being outside that is essential to the Asian-American experience … [this] art is in a sense a kind of response to the experiences that [the artist] has felt living as an eternal foreigner.” This perhaps applies to Wang’s novel, too. And that is why, despite all, I would recommend reading this book. No matter who you are — gay or straight; Asian, white, or some other color of the racial rainbow; young and hopeful or old and jaded — it helps shed light on the “other” perspective. The candidness with which James narrates and the discomfiture that it brings is necessary, lest we close our eyes, shut our ears and retire to our cocoons.