- Wesley Yang, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho"
Wesley Yang is not here to make you feel comfortable. He's here to find your most vulnerable places, and then, methodically, to poke you in those places. To pierce the veil of optimism that you use to get through your days. To make you think thoughts like: What if nobody really loves me? What if nobody really loves anybody? What if your failures are all your fault? What if they're not your fault at all, and society is out to get you?
Wesley Yang is here to make you sit with discomfort.
The Souls of Yellow Folk, a collection of Yang's essays, is a very Generation X work, in an age when Generation X is being rapidly eclipsed and forgotten. The voice is that of the disaffected, semi-detached loser, blaming himself for his own condition even as he watches the world grind down the people around him. It's Beck/Nirvana/Mudhoney/Soundgarden/Eminem. Really, the closest comparison I can think of is the graphic novels of Adrian Tomine.
This ironic, self-deprecating attitude extends to the book's provocative title, a play on W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk. Besides both being collections of essays, the two books aren't similar at all. Though some of Yang's essays deal with the Asian-American struggle, many don't. And even the ones that do offer little in the way of a practical program for racial advancement or emancipation. The message - ironic as always - seems to be that Asian Americans don't have "souls", or at least "soul", in the way that Black Americans do. That while Black Americans can find purpose in their long struggle for emancipation, inequality, and economic survival, Asian Americans find themselves like atomized specks adrift in a capitalist, postmodern fog - earning high incomes and long ago freed from systematic government oppression, yet denied promotions and invisible in popular culture. Free to succeed or fail as individuals, but denied the security of inclusion in a Real America that may or may not even exist.
"The Face of Seung-Hui Cho", the first essay - and one of the most powerful pieces of literature I've ever read - is nominally about the mass murderer who shot 49 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007. But really it's an autobiographical essay, about being Korean American and reacting to news of a massacre by another Korean American. Yang takes the gnawing question, which most people wouldn't even dare to ask themselves, and asks it openly: Could that have been me?
Cho was an incel killer before "incels" were even a thing - a man who blamed his sexual failures for his depression and alienation, who blamed women for his sexual failures, and who blamed society for his failure to attract women. Our usual approach to such people, whether or not they become violent, is to anathematize them - to assume that they're beyond the bounds of comprehension, like some scholars have claimed the Holocaust is. To slap labels on them - "insane", "psycho", "misogynist" - and to then drop them in a mental trashcan where we no longer have to think about what makes them tick. They're not a matter for empathy or human understanding - they're a matter for the FBI.
And for most of us, this approach makes sense. We don't need to go through life wondering what it would take - if it would even be possible - to make us, too, pick up a gun and murder dozens of innocent human beings. There's no need to spend our emotional bandwidth on that. We have better things to do.
But Wesley Yang attempts it. He goes right to the most vulnerable place, right to the horrible question: Was Seung-Hui Cho denied romantic love because he was an Asian man in a racist America? And did the shame and loneliness of that denial push him over the edge from mentally disturbed young man to mentally disturbed young murderer? If girls had been attracted to Seung-Hui Cho, would he have ended up safely recuperating in a mental hospital instead of with a bullet in his head? Would his victims be alive today?
Probably not. Almost certainly not! But we'll never quite know, will we? And it's this terrible never-quite-knowing that's at the center of many of Yang's essays. In "Paper Tigers", Yang deals with the bamboo ceiling, and the way that Asian Americans denied promotion are forced to endlessly wonder whether it was systemic racism, bad luck, or their own personalities that held them back. In "Game Theory," he profiles the protagonists of the 2000s-era pickup artist movement, and asks whether even a lifetime of practice seducing women could make any man successful finding real romantic love. In a trio of essays - "We Out Here", "Is It OK to Be White?", and "What Is White Supremacy?" - he asks whether the social justice movement's crusade to purge structural racism, well-intentioned as it is, will end up creating a set of impossible expectations for society.
In one of my personal favorites, "Inside the Box", Yang recounts the dawn of technology-assisted sex culture - ubiquitous porn, dating apps, and all the rest - and recalls wondering whether they would kill romance, and whether romance was always a lie. He takes this further in "On Reading the Sex Diaries", where he dissects the anxieties of promiscuous tech-addicted New Yorkers who desperately hope for romance even as they distract themselves with intrigue.
The exception to the theme of discomfort might be Yang's profiles of famous individuals; several of the essays are portraits of people like chef Eddie Huang, technologist Aaron Swartz, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. These aren't bad pieces - Yang's impressive command of the English language means that nothing he writes is bad, and there is a lingering tone of uncertainty over the value of even the most successful people's achievements. But the detached, journalistic approach of these profiles somewhat breaks the mood of the rest of the book.
Reviews of The Souls of Yellow Folk have ranged from the insightful to the airily dismissive. Some of the reviews seem a bit like "Reviewer 3" - academic slang for a scholar who complains that your research paper doesn't happen to be the one he would have written. Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in the New York Times, expresses disappointment that Yang didn't turn his anxiety about anti-Asian racism into a call for organized political struggle. But organized political struggle just isn't what Yang is about. He belongs to a different literary tradition - one that sighs and broods and stares out a window instead of shouting and marching in the street. Call me crazy if I think our society needs both kinds of writers.
An insightful piece in Slate by Sophia Nguyen, however, hits closer to home. Near the end of her review, she notes that women are conspicuously absent from Yang's essays - the profiles, the protagonists, and the villains are all men (with the exception of Amy Chua, who gets a brief profile!). There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course - if you want to write about men, you can write about men. Men are people, men are interesting.
But I'm not satisfied. For a writer who took on the monumental, soul-crushing task of empathizing with a mass murderer, it can't be that hard to empathize with a woman or three. I want to know what Yang thinks it's like to be the women his male protagonists dream of finding romance with and winning validation from. I want to know if he thinks the bamboo ceiling feels different when there's a glass ceiling as well. I want to see him profile at least one famous woman.
But there will be time for that. I have a feeling Wesley Yang is just getting started. In the meantime, pick up a copy of The Souls of Yellow Folk, and enjoy being uncomfortable.