SINCE the advent of stream-of-consciousness, the mark of a good book has never been a plot. Writers, like politicians and preachers, have grown increasingly interested in style.
"Form follows function," architect Louis Sullivan once said, but in today's literature, function more often follows form.
Sullivan's motto is a peculiarly apt phrase with which to discuss Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Tale. Set in the city of the Golden Gate Bridges--one of America's postcard-perfect suspension bridges--Kingston's work balances characters and cliches in a startling manner.
Kingston's prose imitates--almost mocks--an era and its writers, but she does not attempt to recreate their style. Hers is the San Francisco of the 1960s, city of foghorns and Jack Kerouac, and Tripmaster Monkey maps the crossroads of countries and characters. The Chinese-Americans of her earlier works, the Mexican-Americans of California fame, the mainstream Americans of boring jobs and boring attitudes, the blond-haired beauties and the bearded draft dodgers--all types pass through Kingston's city.
These heritages mix together, though they often resist integration. The main character of the novel is Wittman Ah Sing, named in a warped way after poet Walt Whitman.
As his name is warped, so is his personality. He is an American, fifth generation, a Berkeley graduate. But he is not an American because of his heritage. Because he is always marked as an Asian, he cannot pass himself off as a Beatnik, despite long hair, a beard and mismatched clothes.
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book
By Maxine Hong Kingston
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Wittman does what he can to defy stereotypes. He purposely wears green because he has been told not to wear it. "We look bad in that color," he remembers a Chinese-American dormmate telling him. "And, of course, from that time on, he knew what color to wear--green, his color to wear to war."
When he meets the blond-haired, fair-featured Tanya, he baits her about racial characteristics. He asks her if she is "blonde all over." "If she had blonde hair," he muses, "would he have said, `Are you brown everywhere? Do you have brown public hair?"
And the response: "She ought to have slapped his hands away, and dumped him for acting racist."
KINGSTON'S racy, invigorating style makes Tripmaster Monkey more than a retelling of The Dharma Bums with an Asian-American twist, more than yet another Less Than Zero tale of disillusionment. Her style is clever and humorous, not ponderous or heavy-handed. She meanders in and out of first-person narration, and dialogue eases its way between Wittman's thoughts and actions.
She is also manipulative. Kingston's book aims for as many allusions per page as James Joyce, but she avoids becoming a nuisance by putting the allusions in the mind of Wittman and treating them all but seriously.
LOOK at the book's opening sentence: "Maybe it comes from living in San Francisco, city of clammy humors and foghorns that warn and warn--omen, o-o-men, o dolorous men, o dolors of omens--and not enough sun, but Wittman Ah Sing considered suicide every day." This phrase could be the bad opening of a bad novel, the unwieldy preface to an overbearing descriptive work, the sort of thing the Surrealists objected to in their first manifesto. Except, in this case it is intentional.
The sentence telescopes the attitude of the '60s into four lousy lines--not to mention its effect of mocking literary criticism and onomatopoeia. And condensing attitudes is what Kingston does best.
Plot, however, is not her strong suit, given that alientation has been the key theme in every major modern work since existentialism. What Wittman does and says is not original. Even his dream--of writing an epic play that would weave together Chinese novels and tales about the famed monkey who brings back Buddhist scripts from India--is based on others' thoughts. And nothing really happens in the book; the drama is practically irrelevant.
What is important, however, is what happens while nothing happens. Kingston follows this "rebel with a cause" to the depths of his personality, and at the bottom comes up with a vision of America and the American dream and California, of integration and discrimination, of the '60s and the '80s. Although sometimes her work seems as out-of-focus as the glasses Wittman wears, it is on the whole breathtakingly fascinating.