Frank K. Saragosa (Ken) teaches American Literature, Ethnic Studies, and Gender and Sexuality at Soka University of America.
The trashy novel, “Andrew and Joey,” is sold as light summer fare. It is a frequently surprising and usually quite intelligent exploration of that curious feature of North American gay males who are attracted to Asian males: the Rice Queen.
Set primarily in Bali, New York and the San Francisco Bay area, the novel begins at the pinnacle of the relationship between Andrew Tan and Joey Breaux—and believe me, for those two it’s all down hill from there. The novel is the story of a relationship coming apart, so much so that it eventually becomes something like two stories. The story of Andrew and Joey becomes the story of Andrew and the story of Joey.
This is an epistolary novel but with the 21st century twist of using e-mail rather than letters. In some novels, this is an annoyingly precious attempt to modernize a classic form, but here, James uses e-mail as more than simply a cutesy substitute for pen and ink; he is also able to see how the technology and protocols differ from the conventions of traditional letter writing. We hear informality and personality, and e-mail as a medium allows for an immediacy of communication and rapidity of response that make not only the geographical expanse of the narrative possible, but that also allow for event, response, and reaction to occur in fairly rapid pace. This e-pistolary is well done; the characters are sufficiently well drawn, the narrative sufficiently well structured, and the overall coherence sufficiently, well… sufficient that in my recollection I forget the formal conceit entirely, but while reading, am caught up in its efficacy. And this, like so much else about this transnational narrative opens so many interesting lines of speculation culture, migration, technology and desire that I applaud, rather than forgive, the device.
The two stories, however, are the heart and point of the novel, and it’s my mixed reaction to each of them that makes me both delighted and left cold by the novel. In one part of the conjoined narrative, Andrew Tan, errant son of a successful San Francisco family who fell in love with a beautiful Cajun in college, gradually realizes that his lover is having an affair, that his relationship is ending, and the remainder of his narrative tapers into recounting his year long process of mourning, moving on and starting over.
Joey Breaux, on the other hand, the poor white trailer trash who (prior to the beginning of the novel) moves to the big northern city, falls in love with an intelligent and upper middle class boy from the right side of the tracks. He finds success as a dancer and is, at the novel’s start, shifting from worry that his dancing career is over to excitement that new vistas as a choreographer await him in Bali. His travel is thanks to a grant which allows him to travel and research and choreograph something formally innovative and culturally transgressive.
Though the novel begins with Joey on the cusp of new levels of professional success, the heady possibilities of new creative avenues and new professional opportunities dovetail with erotic possibilities in the exotic Balinese landscape. A very attractive Balinese boy—perfect not only because he can teach Joey indigenous dance forms, can in fact dance like a dream, but is, most of all, absolutely fascinated by and attached to Joey himself.What proceeds is a surprisingly rapid self-destruction that comes from confusing fascination and newness with love, sacrificing emotional stability and relational health for opportunity, risk, and excitement. But if Andrew’s tale is an almost textbook exploration of how a healthy person grieves and lets go, Joey’s is an equally textbook case of self-destruction. Joey’s story begins with an ill advised but understandable affair, proceeds through systematically destroying most of his other relationships, and ends by destroying finally even the promise of fame that began his tumble into self destruction.
Do I like this book? I don’t know. I can say I was sometimes—often, in fact—compelled, drawn in, and fascinated. And if I were going to be truly honest, I’d have to admit that some fairly substantial part of my fascination with this novel is self-indulgent. I read this novel a few months out of a five year relationship, and I enjoyed the somewhat narcissistic pleasure of working through some of my own feelings of loss and bereavement though cathexis with Andrew. But it was truly Andrew’s calm grieving process that allowed me to begin my own grief. And his ultimate triumph—over his own depression, over his own sense of purposelessness and failure, and in contrast to Joey’s meltdown—was quite a soothing salve to my still wounded heart.
It is only in retrospect that the thought occurs to me that Andrew’s process was perhaps too calm, too patient and self-accepting, and maybe even too healthy to be believable— necessary as a model perhaps, but not entirely true to life. By the end of the novel, Andrew, who it turns out has sacrificed much of his own sense of self in the heat of Joey’s radiance, returns to his family, finds the meaningful and respectable work appropriate for a child of privilege, and even meets a handsome blonde blue collar intellectual (a carpenter who reads! Who knows about Japanese Gardens!). His tale, then, is very proper, very appropriate, and very much a description of the right way to handle love and loss and love again.
But it’s Joey’s story, more than anything, that stays with me. For while Andrew was the site of my emotional cathexis, it’s Joey (or rather, what happens to Joey) that is the thing that lingers after putting the novel away. In the fantasy of the moment—just that moment—Joey’s comeuppance was my ex’s. But finally it was simply too abject, too horrible, and strangely, too sudden, something like watching a TV movie where a good and talented man who likes his nightly beer gets a promotion, tries to drink like his boss, and in the last 15 minutes, ends up on skid row.
Let me mention by way of putting aside certain themes in the story which cause trouble and interest: The strangely unexamined class politics of the novel in which the ultimate fate of both principles seems to confirm that class, apparently, is destiny. In this same vein, the novel allows a possibility that Asian Andrew is drawing from certain perhaps class based fantasies about dangerous blue collar white boys in his fascination with southern redneck Joey. And finally, it seems to me that the rather neat inversion of class and privilege here actually helps make some of the narrative work effectively, not the least of which is because it allows for us to see in the relationship between Joey and Andrew a relationship of mutuality and respect, where otherwise the book makes clear that Joey’s fascination with Asians is a romantic fantasy structured by power imbalance, obsession with the exotic, and fantasies of submission and control.
I put these issues aside in order to alight on something proximate, but different. The narrative bifurcates not just race, not just class, but something else, too: if the emotional health of the novel lies entirely in Andrew, its emotional energy lies entirely with Joey. While I’ve been known to harbor at least occasional disdain for those who invest so much fantasy in the bodies of Asian boys (which makes it hard to enjoy a date, let me tell you!) this novel raises for me questions about the authorial identification and disidentification with Joey. For if the novel offers a fairly interesting and believable glimpse into a mind captivated by the exotic east and all boys Oriental, it ends with a frightening fate, not just for Joey but for a whole tribe of men wasting and dying at various points in the Pacific as they chase their elusive and finally illusory fantasies. There’s identification here, to be sure, but there is purging and punishing as well. I have to wonder: where does all this emotional energy come from?.
But perhaps I should confine myself to narrative rather than psychological evaluation. If I can’t say anything about the authorial investments let me say instead that when this story which seems so full of emotional plausibility, that proceeds from a fairly reasoned understanding of the social, political and interpersonal dynamics of so many gay Asian/White relationships, descends into the hateful and horrific harangue about what happens to white men who become consumed by this particularly destructive fantasy, I am more than a little perplexed.
I didn’t then, and don’t know now, precisely what to make of how to read the sad and unfortunate tale of Joey Breaux. Is it, as I’ve implied, some curious projection of self-hatred (there can’t possibly be none of the author or his bio in Joey or others, can there?) Is it instead a more careful, less loaded story, sensitive and sympathetic to the man who happens to be Asian, critical of the one who happens to be obsessed with them. Or, perhaps this is offered as a cautionary tale: You can be attracted to Asian features, you can enjoy what you imagine to be the cultures of the Orient, but don’t become obsessed with the fantasy of the submissive yet wild Oriental Boy! (In New York with the Balinese treasure become a spoiled and hateful Diva.)
What troubles me then, and wherein my conflicted ambivalence with this text lies, is this third possibility. For (as I said before) I’m not particularly interested in paeans which celebrate the Rice Queen, I’m not quite sure what to make of the Rice Queen as addict, and in serious need of some kind of intervention. And while the book doesn’t use the word “addiction” Joey’s pathology is textbook, and this, perhaps is what is finally most troubling of all. It is not the claim that the obsession of the white man is a self-sabotaging, self-consuming thing but rather that it is Asian men (fantasy projection or no) who are the things about which white men might go insane. There’s a level at which it’s flattering to think that there might be things about me which might drive men mad, but this particular obsession seems to have nothing to do with me at all. And I’m not sure how I feel about being the drug warned against: Everything in moderation, gentleman! And if you can’t handle it, stay away!
So what do I think of Andrew and Joey? It’s fun—truly. It’s better written than most books sitting next to it at A Different Light in the summer reading display. And parts of the book are emotionally satisfying and real. To use my favorite dodge when asked if I liked a book, “I’d consider teaching it” which doesn’t answer the question, but does suggest that there are plenty of interesting questions that the book raises that are well worth exploring. But finally, I’m left if not cold, then certainly disoriented. The guy I identified with came out good. The jerk I was rooting against got his comeuppance. So why do I feel the need to look away?
I’d certainly recommend this book. I’m just not sure to who.
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