In ‘No Good Very Bad Asian,’ a Star Comedian Can’t Escape His Family
Leland Cheuk’s second novel, No Good Very Bad Asian, bears a freshness that the majority of novels simply can’t conjure. It’s a rare book, sprouting fanciful ideas from a realistic emotional foundation. It covers racism, family, belonging, and the meaning of a life well lived while posing as a celebrity rise-and-fall novel.
The main character of No Good Very Bad Asian has two names: his given name, Hor Luk Lee, and his stage name, Sirius Lee (say it aloud). He remains divided between these two identities across the book. Hor is a pimply, beaten-down Chinese boy, the son of a liquor store owner in an unglamorous section of Los Angeles. Sirius is a stand-up comedian and actor with fame and fortune to spare. Hor becomes Sirius when still a teenager, thanks to the mentorship of a washed-up comic with a reality show, Johnny Razzmatazz, whose daughter Hor befriends. He learns the trade of stand-up through Johnny and eventually becomes successful enough to have his own shows, his own specials, and his own movies.
Much of Sirius’s stock in trade as a comic comes from racial humor: “The stereotypes I used were so lazy. Small penises, dog eating, prostitutes, piano and violin lessons, bad driving, good at math. The easier the stereotype, the bigger the laugh. I hated how well they worked.” But Cheuk continually directs No Good Very Bad Asian toward meaning rather than mere satire or pathos:
“The crazy thing was: I was being honest. When I saw some middle-aged Asian lady at one of my shows, I saw my mom. When I saw some older Asian dude, I saw my dad. When I saw somebody my age, I saw the SAT-acing douchebag I could have been…My head was poisoned with self-loathing and the poison spread and made me hate those who looked like me.”
The novel picks delicately at knotty ideas and contradictions about life as an Asian in America. Hor’s attempt to find success without dragging personal demons along for the ride and his mixed feelings about his racial background prove compelling subjects for study. Cheuk provides a lot of painful context for how it feels to be Asian in a creative field (comedy) in which Asians are always props, never stars: “I had been trying to gain their acceptance—white acceptance—all my life. I had made fun of Asians in my act so that mostly white audiences might love me.” He offers no easy answers, pitting the impossible allure of white culture against the agony of a callous family. “Are you proud of how hard he’s worked?” an interviewer asks Hor’s parents. “Prow?” his mom replies. “What that mean?”
But all this meaning doesn’t make the novel heavy. On the contrary, it’s genuinely hilarious. Cheuk reproduces some of Sirius’s comedy (“I had an unhappy childhood. And I’m still having an unhappy childhood”), but certain details are also inherently funny. Hor’s family is constantly drunk on dessert wine because it tastes sweet, and his mother gets into Chinese astrology solely in order to make dire predictions for his life. Sirius’s “slick, together, and different” agent sometimes signs off with “Semper Fi,” and talks like a weary soldier, but she’s actually in the National Guard. A brunch scene with a group of yuppie husbands comes across as a neutered American Psycho: “‘I have to be close to home, alright?’ Leon said, glancing at his phone. ‘I have to walk the dog soon.’”
No Good Very Bad Asian ends with a real downer, one which is both shocking and realistic, and it’s tough to decide whether the book would have been better served by veering a little more neutral. Perhaps it’s Cheuk keeping the promises of the book, both in-narrative and outside: no one ever said life was fair, that everyone will catch the same breaks, that a family of origin will be kind or face up to their failures.
In this way, No Good Very Bad Asian, for all the unlikeliness of its plot, echoes life. Many of its background ideas (movies and sketches Sirius stars in) are deliberately silly, and the plot of Sirius’s life does not proceed in a smooth line toward success or failure. But Cheuk’s confident style and skilled toggling between moods make the book a terrific read. It may not be the most outrageous showbiz novel out there, nor the most heartfelt, but it balances both of those strong flavors with precision and kindness.
(C&R Press, September 14, 2019)