When it’s all said and done, you might have a compilation of events, and you might have a story with meaning. Someone says, don’t worry about details, just get the stories. Someone else says, get the details and the hard facts, and then you can build a case for a story. Someone says a good story helps you to remember, but someone else says everyone remembers differently. Everyone’s got a version of the same story, or maybe there’s no such thing as the same story; it’s a different story every time.
The quote above from Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel seems to me to capture the spirit of the novel. The book, set primarily in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, is actually a series of 10 novellas, each telling the story of the San Francisco Civil Rights scene through a different lens. It’s a compilation of events, some full of factual details, others containing just impressions, and each relying on the voice of its teller. Each novella represents a year, starting with 1968 and ending with 1977, but the action within each novella is not necessarily confined to that year. Each novella also includes some reference, both in the title and in the novella itself, to the I Hotel, a low-cost residential hotel located in the Manilatown area of Kearney Street.
Some of the novellas are traditional in structure and scope, following a handful of characters as they navigate some murky political and racial waters. Others are more like interlocking stories that explore the same themes from different perspectives. And some are almost entirely experimental, playing with art and narrative conventions and even the ways words are laid out on the page. There are transcripts and comics and poems and even a dance choreographed to a jazz tune.
I Hotel is a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, and when I first started reading I thought I had found a novel that would unseat the tremendous Great House by Nicole Krauss as my pick for the prize. The first novella, “1968: Eye Hotel” follows a young Chinese-American man named Paul as he goes through the traditional rituals of mourning his father’s death. These rituals are expected by his father’s Chinatown community, even though Paul’s father would have hated it. The depictions of tourists seeing the funeral procession as a prime photo opp and Paul’s own ambivalence create an amusing and absurd picture:
They make Paul sit in the Cadillac convertible with a giant wreathed photo of his dad. The Cathay brass band of twelve old white guys in maroon outfits starts in with their signature tune, “Nearer My God to Thee,” and marches in front of the convertible Cad. Paul looks back at the hearse following. All the other cars follow the hearse. He’s on parade through Chinatown. Everyone on the street is staring at him and the giant photo. Does he look like a younger version of his dad? Chinese look to see if they recognize the guy in the photo. Kids run alongside the band and then the Cad, like it’s a continuation of New Year’s, and tourists snap their Brownies. He can hear the tourists saying, “The band is playing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ Can you beat that in Chinatown? These folks are Christian too. Honey, is that yellow confetti they’re throwing out of the cars, How festive!” Paul grips his dad’s photo and hides behind it, every nerve in his body electrocuted by an overloaded circuitry of grief and humiliation.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to become utterly bewildered by the barrage of names and historical and cultural references that I simply didn’t understand. Much of this is due to my own ignorance of the Civil Rights landscape for Asian Americans in the 1960s. There’s talk of student strikes and various protest groups and the political ideologies that influenced them. I was especially interested in the intersection of Asian Americans and the Black Panthers, something I had never heard about. My curiosity was piqued, which is wonderful, but my current ignorance made much of the book incomprehensible.
Each novella can mostly stand on its own. A few characters appear in multiple novellas, and certain events are touched on several of them. There were points where Yamashita’s style was too experimental for my tastes. For example, one of the novellas, “1972: Inter-national Hotel,” is intentionally fragmented, each paragraph numbered and the narrative interspersed with quotes from the likes Sun Tzu, Malcolm X, and Imelda Marcos. I found it hard to really get into the story because there was so much going on. But I wanted to get into it because I loved the idea of the story itself—a romance between two young revolutionaries, one a Japanese American woman and the other a Filipino-American man. The style of the writing, however, kept me at a distance.
There were a few times that my frustration got so great that I thought of putting the book down, but then I’d encounter some fabulous bit of writing or some keen insight that kept me interested. Yamashita can write in such a wonderful variety of voices. For example, in “1970: ‘I’ Hotel,” she adopts the voice of a Black Panther talking about the intersection between the African American and Asian American movements for Civil Rights:
Now, the world knows who wrote Soul On Ice, but the other young cat, he’s Chinese. I mean to say, he’s Asian American, representing. Red Guard’s not Chinese per se; it’s a new formation outta Chinatown in San Francisco. Brothers there got together, wanted to be Panthers, but Bobby said no, you got to be your own thing. First it was Red Dragons, like they was kung fu Shaolin types, but that was knocked down in favor of the political: Red Guard Party. Got to be a party. That should catch some notice in the next few months.
The writing is impressive. And some of the novellas would be absolutely amazing (albeit a little short) as stand-alone works. I think my personal favorite was “1975: Internationale Hotel,” which focuses on a single Japanese American family. But I just couldn’t fall in love with the book as a whole. Too often, the style became the focus, when what I really wanted was to know these characters and understand their situation.
So it seems that Nicole Krauss’s Great House is still my pick for the National Book Award, but I was impressed with I Hotel. It’s wonderful when awards can draw attention to talented authors who aren’t so well-known. I only have Lord of Misrule left to read, but given that it won’t be released until the 14th and the award is being announced on the 17th, the chances of my getting it read before the announcement are slim. But if I do, I’ll definitely share my thoughts.