Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson
One of those mammoth (over 600 pages) "kitchen sink" novels, Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel is ridiculously ambitious -- and, happily, quite successful. Yamashita writes about the decade from 1968 to 1978 in San Francisco, from the perspective of the Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and other Asians who were living there. Beginning with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ending with a protest/demonstration to save the I-Hotel, which housed hundreds of single Chinese and Filipino men, her tale is populated by poets, scholars, laborers, musicians, factory workers, left-wingers, Communists, foodies, revolutionaries, painters, filmmakers, and others: there's the poet Paul Wallace Lin, his classmate Lee Yat Min, and their professor Chen Wen-guang (a "Li P-poet type teaching at SF State"); Arthur Ma, a painter who is "the only male heir to a Confucian scholar"; Huo Lian, an artist "working on a film using cuts from Hollywood films that stereotype Orientals with that yellow peril shit"; and, among dozens of others, "radical activist revolutionaries . . . all united to defeat a capitalist-imperialist system of greed."
Formally, the work comprises ten novellas, one for each year of the decade covered, with most written in differing styles. The narrative is related not only through traditional prose -- exposition and dialogue -- but through a three-ring circus of genres: comics (about Suzie and Anna May Wong, Siamese twin daughters of Chiquita Banana), analects ("to see oneself in another is to learn both fate and possibility"; "one man's history is another man's imagination"), and poetry (which depicts fights between various Chinese martial arts masters: "108 points of attack / 36 are secret (lethal) / 72 will not kill or cripple // 5 monkey types: / drunken / stone / lost / standing / wooden," as well as screenplay, theater, songs, study guides, epigraphs, fables, drawings, and an approximation of a prose version of free jazz sax which defies excerpting but makes an intuitive sense on the page and appears to have a minimum of three or four different ways to be read. It's quite a performance, with Yamashita fluidly moving through each style, and testing what can be conveyed through each one.
While there's a notable focus on the social unrest of the times, as the characters struggle to unionize, save their homes, and start their own businesses, it's through the stories of the artists that the narrative is held together, and Yamashita weaves in as much as she can about them and their relations to their heritage. For instance, in one section we learn that "Chairman Mao declares that there is no such thing as art for art's sake -- that all literature and art are for the masses of the people, for the workers, peasants, and soldiers," and then, a few pages later we hear of "a factory worker . . . [who] bicycled a hundred li to tell him what needed to be changed in his novel. ‘The people have a stake in our literature, and we must learn from them.'" Art and books are all treated with the highest respect; when a young scholar borrows a book from a woman and adds his marginalia to hers, it gives rise to the exquisite reflection, "Where else may there be a true meeting of minds but within a book?"
There's a lot going on in the novel, and the overwhelming number of characters and their at times interchangeable characterizations make certain sections a little hard to follow, but Yamashita weaves in many moments of riveting humanity. For example:
But still the human sounds are invasive. Joe's housing a dingbat prostitute next door to keep the men occupied. The insipid trill of her throat and the heavy groaning saturate the porous walls. . . . he grabs his hard penis and pumps it to the rhythms of the squeaking springs and the pounding bed, passes out. Then wakes to the slamming door, sits up high in his loft to greet his flaccid member in a slimy pool, demoralized again. A copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason lies open on his chest.
Or, in a section following a burgeoning, semi-antagonistic relationship:
9.1 Benny, she said from her bed, you're a lousy revolutionary, and only I know it. I should bring it up before the central committee and have your ass blasted.
9.2 He laughed, looked up from his book. You know I'm only in this because I like to read.
Or there's this one, in which a young man is changing an old woman's tire for her:
"Are you one of those young people who want to change the world?" Wayne stuttered, "Well, maybe." He sat down next to her.
"I knew an old lady way back when who was a suffragette. And she told me that she was sure that all wars would end when women could vote because women were the only ones who would vote war out of existence." She paused and shook her head. "Didn't happen that way, but that's O.K. dear." She patted Wayne's knee. "You keep on trying."
Huge, messy, and frantically fun, I Hotel offers a very believable panorama of life at this time. It's apparent that Yamashita did an incredible amount of research for the book. The portraits of these early generation Asian Americans, some of whom were or knew people who had been imprisoned in internment camps, denied a humane wage, got fucked with by the cops and the government, fought losing battles for citizenship, and lived in deplorable conditions, are quite moving and conveyed without sentimentality. It's an impressive accomplishment from an author who continues to push the boundaries of innovative fiction.
Books mentioned in this post