Mystery and Mockery

My European-born mother was given to making pronouncements about life in the U.S. that were halfway between a judgment and an epigram. One of my favorites: “There is no such thing as enough in America.”

I thought of that while reading  the entertaining Yellowface, in which a struggling author, June Hayward, steals a manuscript from her famous, best-selling Chinese-American friend after she dies.  June fills in gaps, polishes it extensively, and gets it published as her original work.  She becomes a huge success, but every thing she gains makes her hungry for more.

It’s initially great fun to watch her first rave about the stolen manuscript, then slowly find fault with it, then fix the problems she sees and tone down the excesses, and finally claim that’s it’s undeniably hers because it’s so much better.  And isn’t she doing her friend a great service in making it a better book?

Selling the novel turns her world upside down and June is overwhelmed by her good fortune: a vast amount of money, a publishing house that really cares about her, headlines everywhere she turns, best-seller status, great reviews, profiles in prestigious magazines and newspapers, strangers recognizing her.  She becomes a celebrity author, though she knows that it could just as easily have been someone else who was picked to be turned into a star. 

The downside is her incredibly masochistic addiction to reading everything she can about herself in print and on social media, which can either be a serotonin boost (as she’s overly fond of saying) or infuriating when she’s accused of cultural appropriation because she’s white and the book is primarily about Chinese laborers in France during WWI.

Kuang certainly knows how to mock the publishing world as well as Robert Harris does in The Ghost Writer, and she takes special aim at complaints of cultural appropriation that will remind you of the controversy over American Dirt.  She also eviscerates what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery” that elevates certain writers for other reasons than the quality of their books.

Yellowface can be read as a sort of mystery-thriller because as soon as June steals the manuscript and decides to publish it, you feel a clock ticking: won’t someone discover her fraud and shame her–or worse?  Of course, it doesn’t take long for the predictable Twitter mobs to attack her, and the waves of Twitter warfare in this book are exhausting.

You may be wondering if the book ever explains why June steals Athena’s work, and the real answer goes beyond jealousy in a devastating set of revelations. 

Given that Kuang is the kind of megastar author who dies in this book, is her satire of the struggling friend empathetic or cruel?  That’s one question.  Another is the revised, stolen novel itself.  When June shares some sections of the book that she actually wrote (bragging about their brilliance), the writing doesn’t seem stellar, yet she claims the audience is under her spell.  Why didn’t Kuang’s editor pay special attention to those passages to make them more convincing? 

As reported in The Washington Post, this novel “is now at the center of a real-life publicity frenzy, its cover gracing tote bags, railway ads and a giant mural at the London Book Fair.”  That’s the kind of PR that June gets in the novel for her book.

Yellowface interrogates friendship, jealousy, the randomness of fame, and the truly bizarre realities of publishing today.  The last half really gathers steam and elevates the book above satire.  After you finish, you might well decide to cut Twitter loose and give up doom-scrolling forever.  If you can. . .  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Press and many other publications.


“The Game She Plays Can Turn Deadly”

Siena Sterling has combined some time-tested fiction tropes in her new quasi-suspense novel: the fish-out-of-water, posh country house gatherings with some kind of accident, the femme fatale, and a woman worried she’s not good enough for her lover. The results are uneven despite the surprise at the end.

It’s 1980 and after a bad breakup, Nicola leaves benighted Buffalo for Paris but is  easily swayed on board her flight by a charming Englishman, James, to spend time with him in the south of France.  She’s so naive and unworldly that she wonders if there’s a bakery in his village because one of her goals in life is to eat a flaky croissant.  Sterling misses a chance to offer readers something special when Nicola and her boyfriend visit the southern French town of Uzès and there’s no description of its cathedral, the duke’s castle, or the lovely arcades. 

The pair go off to a country manor in England to spend a shooting weekend with James’s friends where Nicola is astonished and humbled nonstop. His friends all went to Cambridge together!  How does she know which fork to use at dinner!  Brits can be snide!  Why hasn’t she seen the cook!  Three-course meals are exotic! The hosts will someday have titles of nobility! They already have servants!

But for all her cluelessness, Nicola can somehow imagine the most attractive woman in the group would be more fitting in a “salon entertaining French philosophers and Russian novelists.”  That seems too sophisticated an observation for Nicola the way she’s been written.

As for the femme fatale, she’s repeatedly called beautiful and stylish, but she comes across as a run-of-the-mill narcissist, so whatever schemes she has in mind (remember the title) are painfully obvious.

Jealous of this woman’s acrobatic skill during a stupid parlor game after dinner, Nicola actually jumps onto a glass table and humiliates herself despite being uninjured amid all the broken glass.  That reaction makes sense, but she’s so shame-bound and clueless through the book that it feels like overkill–and even worse, she’s not the only hapless female in the book.

The English shooting weekend is marred by someone getting shot (of course), and there’s also a mysterious rich German present who’s so quickly whisked off-stage you wonder why the author bothered.  A second shooting weekend up in Scotland is more dramatic, but it takes way too long to arrive and there’s a clichéd taunting speech by the book’s villain.

The book’s title is a partial misdirection and that’s where the surprise comes in which is arguably the book’s best moment.  Unfortunately, the prose is bland, the settings aren’t vivid enough, and the characters lack depth.  For an unforgettable English house party novel, try Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood or Isabel Colegate’s classic The Shooting Party.  Both are tremendous reads.  ★★

Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, and several public radio stations.  Guests on his interview show included Erica Jong and Salman Rushdie.

Author Profile: Jennifer Weiner’s Complaining Again….

So best-selling author Jennifer Weiner watched the Super Bowl halftime extravaganza, and the perfect looks and body of Jennifer Lopez made her feel inferior.

Talking about her Facebook friends, she wrote in the New York Times: “Some members of my social-media community were in awe. Others — myself included — were feeling personally judged.”

This is her very tired shtick as an author.  Not so long ago she was complaining in the New York Times about how the “snobs” in the literary world looked down on her novels. And she lamented her status as a writer of popular fiction.

Weiner’s professors were Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison and she said she couldn’t ever have imagined them liking her published work. Did she ask them? And even if they thought her work was trash, so what?

Most authors are never mentioned by the Times, but she’s a contributing opinion author there. She was even the subject of a glowing profile in The New Yorker about—you guessed it—not being respected.  How many writers in America get that kind of exposure?

Don’t be fooled by all her happy-face publicity photos. It seems that whenever you read an opinion piece by Weiner or see her quoted, she’s got this humongous chip on her shoulder.

The last time I checked, her first novel was in its 57th printing. The New Yorker reported back then that “Weiner’s books have spent two hundred and forty-nine weeks on the Times best-seller list.” Over fourteen thousand readers on Goodreads had reviewed her latest novel. Weiner’s also made millions from her books, and more than one of them was turned into a movie.

How many writers in America enjoy that level of success?

Whatever people say about her books and however much she gripes about being dissed, Jennifer Weiner is in the publishing world’s 1%. She wealthy and famous, but she’s not satisfied. I guess she wants to be as honored as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. Well, dream on.  Who wouldn’t?

Weiner’s consistent carping reminds me  of the author whose first novel sold half a million copies in hardcover and was ecstatically praised—but he bitched to a writer friend of mine that he didn’t get a Pulitzer nomination.

For some people, some authors, nothing is ever good enough.  If Weiner got the  Pulitzer, you can imagine her asking why it took so long.  And so of course Jennifer Lopez makes her feel like crap.  If she looked Like J-Lo, she’d feel inferior to Beyoncé, and the beat goes on….

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.