Novel about ‘intentional loser’ good for laughs
but little else
Last updated 12-31-08 at 12:26 p.m.
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
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.