Categorized | Vol 28 No 2 | 1/3-1/9

Novel about ‘intentional loser’ good for laughs but little else

By Amy He
Northwest Asian Weekly

David Yoo is a cynic — but that might be a bit of an understatement.

In Yoo’s second novel, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” he writes, “It’s like a rule that love stories have to end badly, and ours is no exception.” Albert Kim, the story’s protagonist, is a student who battles the desire to stay out of high school society while pursuing one of the most popular girls at Bern High.

Albert meets Mia Stone at a summer job where he spends his days with Mia vacuuming and dusting dirty rooms. Naturally, a whole summer together leads to the two characters’ interest in each other and before long, they become “something.”

However, Mia had just broken off a long-term relationship with Bern High’s popular Ryan “The House” Stackhouse. When school starts up again after the summer, Ryan is diagnosed with cancer and Mia’s attention is diverted away from Albert.

Although it may sound like one, the story isn’t a formulaic teenage romance. Yoo is a master at describing Albert’s acute perceptions and unique reactions to his high school environment. (One can’t help but wonder if Yoo himself experienced some of the same things the protagonist did.)

Albert describes himself as the “intentional loser” who accepts his fate of being the school’s loser and is so far gone from the high school norm that he doesn’t even try anymore.

While Yoo may be a natural humorist and an astute writer, he is not as good when coming to terms with Albert Kim’s Asian American identity. The topic of Asian American identity is hardly explored in the book because in Albert’s eyes, the majority of the wrongs in his life were the results of his parents “idiocy.”

Yoo writes, “I was able to disengage from high school society in part because my parents were so clueless. Or rather, they were the typical Asian American parents, and so they were blind to recognizing that their son was totally alone … and therefore naively did nothing to help me.”

The author generally assumes that all Asian American parents use the same methods of disciplining their American-born children and thus, Albert’s grievances are inseparable from his parents’ lack of understanding of America.

For an author who is so keen on portraying how brutal the high school arena can be, his ideas of Asian American parents are condescending and hostile. “I’ve always attributed [their puzzled expressions] to the fact that they work so immigrantly hard. … I like to think that, because otherwise the only logical answer is that they’re a pair of highly-functioning idiot savants.”

Perhaps Yoo believes that Asian American kids all go through a phase of belligerently denouncing their parents’ American experience. As a 16-year-old in high school, maybe it is the normal thing for Albert to find his folks uncool.

Whatever the case may be, Albert is harsh and unforgiving. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually were North Korean spies … It’s not that they’re phony in a malicious way; rather, it’s that they talk phonily because they’re thoroughly clueless and think it’s how they’re supposed to talk in his country,” he says.

Albert sees himself as an Asian American done right, but he still experiences the discomforts of being one of the few Asian kids around in his neighborhood, especially when he visits Mia’s parents. He finds that Mia’s parents glaze over him, don’t pay attention to him, and barely make an effort to connect with him.

In a story that has a finely crafted beginning and middle, the ending falls short. The action and dialogues that take place between the main characters are crammed into the final pages of the book, and ultimately, the ending does not reconcile the story. It came too abruptly and leaves the reader hanging.

Despite all that, Albert is one of the most candid characters portrayed in fiction. Yoo’s ability to pinpoint the nuances of the complicated system of high school society shapes the character.

As only Albert can prove, being an intentional loser has its delights. (end)

“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” is by David Yoo. Published by Hyperion, 374p., hardcover, 2008. $16.99.

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