“The Asian American experience is a history of erasure. Generations of Asians in America have been forced to deal with attempts to define them as uniquely other, from the Angell treaty of 1880, which limited ships arriving in America to no more than fifteen Chinese, to the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war. Beyond legislative alienation, the popular image of Asians in America has not progressed as rapidly as the media treatment of other ethnic groups.
For many years, the Asian male of pop culture was a sinister gargoyle, a Fu Manchu, a simian general Tojo, or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The more recent archetype is a bumbling eunuch, Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, or the Chinese intern on Silicon Valley.
Leland Cheuk’s new novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, subverts these stereotypes by exaggerating them into a foundational mythology. Sulliver Pong, the eponymous narrator, on trial for the attempted murder of his bureaucrat father, recites a multigenerational guignol of his stupid, unlucky forbears, starting with a nineteenth-century railroad worker and arriving in the present day with his father as the mayor of Bordirtoun, New Mexico. The frame tale, in which frontier and internment camp episodes are woven, is Sulliver’s campaign to replace his physically abusive, womanizing, real estate developer father Saul as the mayor.
An immigrant family’s success or lack thereof after arriving in America is familiar. What is fresh is that each generation of Pong men proves to be inept or evil. This is not a story of a fall from grace or redemption, but persistent, stupid malice. In contrast to the bumbling asexual nerds of television Asians, the men of the Pong family are misogynist sexual omnivores. At one point, the narrator’s great uncle beats a prostitute to death after she refuses his offer of financial support. The Russian doll structure of the novel is mirrored in the interlocking hierarchies of cruelty within the Pong family. The men are victims of the white establishment, and the women are victims of the men.”