Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Hotel

I just read a hell of a book. I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. Although I've mostly abandoned Read Red (for good reasons now! I'll post about that separately, after this), I'm compelled to stop in here to recommend this very fine novel.

It's a panoramic, yes even kaleidoscopic with all the word's trippy connotations, recounting of the political organizing among and struggles of Asian Americans in San Francisco from the late 1960s to late 1970s. Which culminated in the battle to save the I Hotel. Such a big story, comprising so many individual stories, and how does Yamashita tackle it? By telescoping in and out, veering round and about, telling and retelling, circling, approaching, pulling back, zooming in. There are many characters, many communities, much overlapping; there are jumpcuts and slo-mos; love and rage and beauty and death; there are workers and students, revolutionaries and artists; thought and action. Theory and practice!

This is not a novel to read for deep characterizations. Although there are many stunning moments, evocations of emotion, relationship pivots, in a book this big with so many characters and so many angles from which to tell the various smaller stories that spin together to tell the overall big story, mostly there are character sketches, and that's okay. You have to get into the rhythm, you have to accept that just as you are pulled into one life you're going to be yanked away toward another, but have faith, stick with it, they're all linked, they're almost all told more than once from more than one vantage point, and they'll all come together by the end. At which point you'll be weeping and raving as the people band together to save the I Hotel and the state mobilizes to smash them.

For perhaps the first one-third of the book I was a bit on edge because I was unsure whether the author was presenting these characters and these stories with the attitude that is prevalent in U.S. literature, that is, the distanced cynical 40-years-later attitude that looks upon the struggles of the 60s and 70s as misguided and overdone, the strugglers as naive and foolish. You know, I've ranted about it often enough here at Read Red: the "madness-of-the-60s" genre. But no, ultimately I relaxed and trusted Yamashita as a comradely guide presenting to the reader a lovingly rendered telling about people and a time and place that mattered if what matters to you is the struggle against oppression and racism, for liberation and justice. If you love that struggle, if you love your sisters and brothers who give themselves to it, you'll love this book.