The Book We're Talking About: 'The Dead Do Not Improve' By Jay Caspian Kang

"The Dead Do Not Improve" by Jay Caspian Kang
Hogarth, $25.00
Publishes August 7, 2012

What is it about?
A disgruntled MFA grad, Philip Kim, usually isn't up to much. One evening, while generally bumming around in a newly gentrified area of San Francisco, he discovers that his elderly neighbor has been murdered. Kim becomes the unlikely protagonist of a quickly unfolding mystery that involves everything from angry surfers to subtle conversations about race in America.

Why are we talking about it?
We're always on board with genre bending, so the fusion of a whodunit plot and a starving artist protagonist piqued our interest. Plus, Jay Caspian Kang's voice is refreshing. He presents grad-school insights in a sharp, accesible, and often humorous way.

Who wrote it?
Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland.. This is his first novel. His work has been published in New York Times Magazine, Wired, and He currently lives in New York, but was born in Seoul and grew up in Boston and North Carolina.

Who will read it?
Fans of dark humor, smart plot-driven reads and Haruki Murakami. Also, those interested in learning more about Korean American culture and the millennial mindset.

What do the reviewers say?
The Wall Street Journal: "The writing in 'Dead' has more in common with books like Jonathan Lethem’s 'Motherless Brooklyn' and Haruki Murakami’s 'A Wild Sheep Chase' than it does with Maxine Hong Kingston’s 'The Woman Warrior.' Mr. Kang finds it frustrating that some readers expect a novel by an Asian-American writer to focus on tiger moms, poverty or the aftermath of war. 'I just hope the people who want that sort of thing hate this book,' he says."

Publishers Weekly: "Kang has a gift for snide zingers, and his un-PC digressions on race and “Koreanness” are among the book’s freshest and most absorbing aspects. But too often chapters end in clunky cliffhangers that lead to little resolution or catharsis."

Kirkus Reviews: "A Pynchon-esque menagerie of California surfers, cops, thugs and dot-com workers converge in a comic anti-noir."

Impress your friends:
Surfing plays a key role in Kang's description of San Francisco. Although surfing existed in Hawaii by 1769, the pastime didn't make its way to the continental states until the early 1900s, when Hawaiin surfer George Freeth was brought to Huntington Beach in California to showcase his skills in honor of a new railroad opening.

Opening lines:
"The Baby Molester and I talked only twice. The first time, she knocked on my door and asked for four eggs. I remember being amused by the anachronism--what sort of person still asks her neighbor for eggs?--until I realized it had been years since I'd had a single egg in my refrigerator, much less four."

Typical passage:
"The detective who picked up the phone identified himself as Jim Kim. I tried not to be bowled over by this. Every Korean is named Kim, and no Kim has ever done me a favor. This Kim told us to meet him at the Starbucks on 20th and Mission. He would be wearing a Wisconsin sweatshirt.
We called a cab.
My panic internalized. My cheeks and hips ached. Ellen, hunched over and huddled in her performance fleece, deflated, slowly."