“Eat Everything Before You Die,” a novel by Jeffery Chan

Eat Everything Before You Die

Eat Everything Before You Die: a Chinaman in the Counterculture; a novel by Jeffery Paul Chan. U. of Washington Press, 304 pp., $22.50 hardcover. ISBN: 0-295-98436-8

A review by George Leonard

Jeffery Paul Chan is the new Henry Miller; or Toni Morrison, take your pick. Miller, Morrison and Chan are prose poets, who construct their plots like serial monologs in chains of modernist set pieces.

Chan is like Miller in the way he prioritizes sex, rowdy passion, lust. The Chinese Americans in Eat Everything Before You Die devour life. Chan has managed to include food, ingestion, on almost every page. As it would for Henry Miller– the “eat everything” means cunnilingus and drugs as much as food, not to mention the hero’s gay brother’s little ode on the gustatory pleasures of dick.

But Chan is closer to Toni Morrison as a poet. For Morrison and Chan alike, the bursts of poetry, the concatenations of words, the sensual hymns to the joy of earthly consumption, are the book’s center– and for me, their great achievement. Lest such praise sound extravagant, I have been careful to quote Chan at length in this review. Even from snippets the reader may decide if Chan is as sensual a poet as I claim; and as reminiscent of Miller and Morrison as I claim.

With “Eat Everything,” Chan may finally become as familiar to the broad American audience as he is to the niche audience for ethnic studies. Within that world he, like his friend Frank Chin, is something of a legend. Chan is routinely honored even by political opponents as co-founder, in 1970, of the nation’s first School of Ethnic Studies, at San Francisco State University. A father of Asian American studies, he was chief editor of the pioneering anthology which created the Asian American canon– and this meant finding the rare existing copies of the early texts, as well as anthologizing them. (Full disclosure: I know Jeff Chan and have interviewed him, but in the tiny world of Asian American studies, one could not find a reviewer who doesn’t know Professor/Editor/Chairperson Chan).

Chan’s new novel will get a lot of politicized attention. That’s appropriate, but also a shame, like reducing The Bluest Eye to its agitprop value. Eat Everything is an equally serious work of Modernist art by a serious artist who spends as much time in Italy as in America. A simultaneous Italian translation is appearing, and it would be ironic if in Italy Chan– in translation– was treated as a poet, but not here.

Henry Louis Gates has lamented “the burden of representation” which ethnic writers bear. WASPs get to write odes to the west wind and nightingales, but the Black artist, Gates complains, must always be producing “the text of Blackness” or be criticized. Chan himself had complained of this, protesting the way Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a work filled with symbols and allusions, like a Joseph Heller novel, had been reviewed as if it were a docudrama on the bachelor society era. Lawson Inada, who has been the best “Asian American poet” so far, gets on National Public Radio for his poems about internment camp– but the great influence on, and subject of, Inada’s poems, was the Chicago jazz of Fats Waller, Earl ‘Fatha’ hines, and Art Tatum. The poems not only bear titles like “Lester Young,” “Billie Holiday,” “Charlie Parker,” they use tactics of surprise based on “Thelonious Monk’s prosody– how each time he’d come out of the speakers,” Inada once recalled, “in a different distinctive way, and always swinging.”

We must not reduce Eat Everything to Asian American content. It’s there, of course, just as ethnic content is present and important in every page of The Bluest Eye, (the Morrison novel which Eat Everything most resembles.) Chan’s book comes, with fanfare, from the University of Washington Press, as a volume in the distinguished “Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies,” so let’s notice the Asian American content first.

A character with the surreally significant name “Christopher Columbus Wong” journeys not so much across space with a gallery of representative figures, but mentally back through time, recalling the last half-century of Asian American experience. Chris Columbus Wong, in his still-lusty Henry Millerish sixties, remembers “the time when we were all Orientals because of Exclusion,” the time of the paper sons and the bachelor society, when to be Chinese American wasn’t to be an Asian American Silicon Valley executive in a BMW, but to be a “Chinaman” short-order cook in a greasy spoon along the Mexican border. Christopher Columbus Wong has skeptically watched the “Chinamen” become white-collar “Asian Americans” who have climbed to the summit of “the golden staircase.” Today, “the shadow the Exclusion casts over the new Chinatown malls teeming with pregnant families is quite pale, nearly transparent. The old migrant bachelor society is dead. Young mothers squat at tanks of tilapia, carp, catfish, frogs, turtles, a bounty of live edibles.” (Notice the Homeric catalog of beautiful words, ending in “a bounty of live edibles,” a luscious phrase.) But Chris Columbus Wong, defiantly remaining a “Chinaman” among Asian Americans, still prefers to speak to “the anonymous generations who left us orphans in a Chinatown diaspora, to invent ourselves as we might.”

Chinatown postcard

The book’s subtitle, its archaic term “Chinaman” both slurring and provoking those stairmaster “Asian Americans” evokes Chan’s friend and frequent co-conspirator Frank Chin (“The Chickencoop Chinaman”). The subtitle also promises us adventures in the “counterculture.” Chan, a lifelong San Francisco hipster, has no problem delivering moments when Asian American culture and American counterculture intermarry. (An email from him in response to questions concerning this book came from an Amsterdam cafe, where the fellow opposite Chan had just lit up his bong.) Preliterate Hmong tribesman splash down in California and in a single generation morph into tattooed American punks. Columbus Wong recalls the earnest, Asia-adoring White counterculture, with amusement, “the smell of sandalwood, men and women dressed in tunics, in gowns, the faintly bony profiles of children raised as vegetarians…. sitting patiently for hours of theatrical performance of faux Hindu epics that taught the children a lengthy vocabulary of Sanskrit words for sexual parts in a monotony of drumming and a paralyzing hashish that left even Twig smiling and quite still.”

But even journalists notice social phenomena that extreme, and Chan’s eyes are much sharper. What’s truly impressive is Chan’s ability to write about normal people and their subtler states of mind. In countless Norman Rockwellish books and articles, “becoming American” has been sentimentalized and prettified. It must take place, but the pain is never honored. Chan, by contrast, has written the great novel of the assimilation experience– and that is one of the main American experiences. The sheer pain and confusion of a normal person’s assimilation has never been so well caught. I felt the kind of surprise I felt reading Beloved, and realizing I’d never guessed the mental agony of slavery. Any “ethnic” American will find deeper insight into all that their immigrant ancestors endured.

But it takes all of Chan’s novelistic technique to catch the experience. Eat Everything hits far harder than any dramatized social science article could. It had to be art to contain this much content. Toni Morrison’s works tell us more about being Black in America than Henry Louis Gates’s essays can. The style is the content. If tragedy, as Nietzsche said, is the recognition of necessity, of necessary loss and pain, assimilation is tragic. Columbus Wong, as his name suggests, is no separatist and he seeks no alternative. (Whether he is even an immigrant is one of the book’s mysteries. He suffers it all, regardless.)

Necessary as assimilation is– and notice that the term for “being eaten” and for joining the country’s culture is the same– the book shows us the psychological costs, the vertigo and nausea of a developed personality being digested alive by a new culture. The psyche deliberately tries to un-evolve back into a jelly-like embryo, to facilitate the digestion. This is a smelting pot, and it hurts to be melted down and recast in a new mold. The depth of this mental pain is scanted in the American ideology. For the last twenty years I have watched my newcomer wife and her family endure it. Some in-laws went mad from it. My brother-in-law just died young from it. The Xiao Yans become “Susan” and the Guo Liangs become “Grant”– yet still feel like Xiao Yan and Guo Liang inside, while parenting genuine Jennifers and Jasons– from whom they feel unexpected distances. Eat Everything Before You Die, its last word changing the title from gusto to desperation, conveys the assimilation experience as never before, the way Toni Morrison managed to convey the real, lasting trauma of slavery in Beloved.

Like Morrison, Chan uses the full Modernist arsenal of styles to create an hallucinatory texture, in which everything and everyone is changing into other things and other ones.”Our made-up family of facsimiles, of uncles and aunts, of orphans and secrets, of inventions, of disguise…” Everything comes unmoored, as people change countries, families, identities, even their sex, or at least, their orientation. Inada used jazz; Chan appropriately uses San Francisco Acid Rock to dissolve characters and culture in a Purple Haze of Americanization.

To talk about the content I have already had to talk about the art, which creates it. The book starts with an ingeniously resonant symbol of assimilation, budget airplane passengers “packed like galley slaves” stuck in midair between Asia and America,”seven hours down and seven more miserable hours to go” forming a new society of “fellow passengers hurtling through space… we invent a social order, an etiquette… And food– food we manipulate to suit whatever illusory appetite we fancied– sustains us.” The passengers stuck in medias res are torn by “nostalgia” and braced up by “confidence in the future that this hour, this minute, this flight will end.” Any educated American, familiar with the jet-lagged neither-here-nor-there feeling of transoceanic flight, understands– and by extension understands the interminable transoceanic flight of a normal person’s assimilation, of being no longer Xiao Yan but not yet Susan. And that flight lasts a lifetime.

Towards the book’s end, as there should be, there is marriage, and last things. “Here is the prison of life and death, here the mumbled apothecary that are prayers, the regiment of blood and bowel movements measured.” But en route– since these are Asian Americans, not Irish Americans– there is the compensating joy of food.

As his principal metaphor he used another sense of the word “assimilation”: eating. “I do hope,” Chan emailed this interviewer, the stoned Dutchmen sucking on their hash around him, “the text suggests to all readers the ambiguous process assimilation/acculturation, digestion represents.” Those being assimilated, assimilate.

Jeff Chan is a sensualist. He excels at evoking physical sensation. Food is the perfect way for Chan to show off his greatest gift, his union of poetry and the senses. Open anywhere and you find baroque poems filled with alliteration and internal rhymes in which people devour “pig and poi… cholesterol-clogging potted meats… organic, macrobiotic, vegetarian voodoo,” “I love fish heads, don’t you?” a woman exclaims as “she rips at the [fish] lips and pulls the crackling off, sucking at the glutinous jaw”. Columbus Wong gloats over an industrial-strength kitchen range “capable of generating 100,000 B.T.U.s enough to crackle the ectoskeleton of an Australian prawn while leaving the meat tissue tender and succulent, shrimp meat wrapped in a natural potato chip, the crustaceous antennae and surviving appendages, curled and crunchy.” The odd adjective “crustaceous” unites the crustacean and the crisp crust it has become. But one sees, re-reading, that this prawn has paddled into the text not only for its taste, but for Chan’s voluptuous pleasure masticating its consonants and syllables– try saying aloud, “crustaceous antennae and surviving appendages, curled and crunchy.”

Most of Chan’s feasts are feasts of language as well, exactly as they would be in Miller or Morrison. Chan struck his keynote on the first page, with lovingly Gongoristic praise of airplane chicken as “that unthreatening loaf of breast meat in a non-lactose cream sauce with four karats of peas and a diadem of mushroom.” Four “karats” of peas: Chan transfigures them into jewels. And notice the echoing “n” and “m” in “and a diadem of mushroom.” And notice how funny the lovely little poem is!

I hope these long quotations have suggested that the work is, like Morrison’s or Miller’s, a mosaic of delicious set pieces. As Auerbach pointed out, a mosaic is a picture as a painting is; but the picture is made by setting separate, gemlike stones next to each other. Chan’s gemstones include not only of food, but the voluptuous experience of drugs (“a smell, a quick hallucination, a neuron fire fed by the cocaine and synthetic mescalines.” ) Yet this is no familiar hippie novel of the S. F. druggie years. Those are pearls that were the hippie’s eyes, and, as they pass through the alembic of Chan’s poetry, all familiar scenes are changed, into something rare and strange. After sipping a “slurry of shaved ice and vodka” spiked with LSD, Chan unleashes this tour-de-force, better than anything in Burroughs: “The moire of fading sunlight through the bamboo screens began to twinkle and shine with darts of neon hues. I moved slowly down the driveway past the shiny four-door Lincoln Leviathan mating with a Daihatsu Charade, thunder lizard humping an ancient armadillo, windshield glass staring at me, waves of nausea, the smart smell of spilt gasoline…. Words began to disintegrate, soap bubbles: I, ego, life, death, nothing.”

In truth, all such discrete concepts have been disintegrating throughout the book, like the people, like the families, like the identities. Let us hope, though, that this sophisticated and poetic work of High Modernist art is never reduced to its political content, but finds the full understanding which The Bluest Eye has received.

About the Reviewer:
George J. Leonard is Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Humanities Review. His website is georgeleonard.com

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