The Dead Do Not Improve: A Novel

Kang, Jay Caspian

ISBN 10: 0307953882 / ISBN 13: 9780307953889
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Synopsis: Hailed as The Awl’s 2012’s novel to anticipate, this glorious debut stars hippie detectives, a singular city, and an MFA student on the run.
 
      On a residential Bay Area block struggling with the collision of gentrifier condos and longtime residents, stymied recent MFA grad Philip Kim is sleeping the night away when bullets fly through a window in his apartment building and end up killing one of his neighbors. Philip only learns about the murder the next day when bored and Googling himself. But when he gets caught up in the investigation and becomes the focus of an elaborate, violent scheme, he will learn far more than he ever wanted to about his former four-eggs-at-a-time borrowing neighbor Dolores Stone, aka “The Grey Beaver,” and her shocking connections to an underworld only a city like this one could create.
      Siddhartha “Sid” Finch, a homicide detective bitter about everything except his gorgeous wife, and his phlegmatic, pock-marked partner Jim Kim, land the case. Sid and Jim race after Philip through a menacing, unknowable San Francisco fending off militant surfers, vaguely European cafes, and aggressive Advanced Creative Writing students as they all try to figure out just who’s causing trouble in this city they love to hate. 
      Exceedingly unique, pulsing with vigor and heart, and loaded with fierce, fresh language, The Dead Do Not Improve confirms Jay Caspian Kang as a true American original as obsessed with surfing and surviving as with the power of unforgettable storytelling.

Review:

Q&A with Eleanor Henderson and Jay Caspian Kang

Q: Well, first—forgive me—a crafty question. I’m impressed by the way The Dead Do Not Improve balances Phil’s point of view in the first person and Finch’s point of view in the third person—a kind of architectonic feat, to use John Gardner’s term. That’s hard to pull off without making a reader lazy-eyed. How did that structure announce itself in the writing of the book?

A: Philip’s voice came to me first. I’ve always wanted to write from the perspective an overly sentimental dude who can’t quite get himself to commit to one specific broadcasted emotion. Finch’s sections came to me a bit later. I wanted to put together a third-person voice that could hold a lot of reflections about love. The plot of the book admittedly sounds a bit crazy, but I was really trying to write a love story, with a lot of asides and reflections on a decaying relationship.

Q: I’m also impressed by the up-to-the-minuteness of the story. Craigslist, Quizno’s, Obama—the novel feels like it was written last week. But there’s also an otherworldliness to this San Francisco, as though it’s actually a few absurd steps ahead of us—Personal Break-Up Coaches, the Being Abundance Cafeteria. I was reminded of what Gary Shteyngart said about the difficulty of writing about the present day, because the world is moving too quickly to capture. Was that a challenge for you? Did you have to write in a mad dash to stay ahead of your own material?

A: Quizno’s will outlive us all! People will always want toasted subs with too much Italian dressing. As for the up-to-dateness of the book, I really did want it to read like it had been written last week. The book deals a lot with Internet culture and what happens when we piece ourselves out to social media sites, chat clients, and the never-ending churn of website content. I thought the book would have to feel very current to achieve that effect.

As long as I could embed that current culture in sentences that I liked, I didn’t really see the newness as an artistic compromise. I hope we’re all over trying to write novels that will outlast even Quizno’s.

Q: You’ve lived in a lot of places—Seoul, Boston, North Carolina, now L.A. How did living in such diverse locales influence the world you’ve presented in The Dead Do Not Improve, and why did you choose to set your first novel in San Francisco?

A: I lived in San Francisco for four years and really loved it. Every recognizable public space in that city has this amplified energy about it, and it was always fun, as a writer, to try to capture those spaces. The city also has been the setting for a lot of hard-scrabble detective books. I love those old Raymond Chandler books (not to mention the Dirty Harry movies) and wanted their influence to hang over this novel.

Q: If you were stranded in a Laundromat and, like Phil, couldn’t find an unlocked Wi-Fi signal, what three books would you hope to have with you?

A: I sometimes dream about living in an apartment just out of Wi-Fi range. Right now, I’m subletting my friend’s place in New York and can’t figure out how to connect to his Wi-Fi.

There’s one open network I can access if I sit in one corner and angle my body a specific way. I was hoping this would keep me away from the Internet, but I’m weak . . .

But if I was in a Laundromat and I had enough dirty clothes to justify bringing three books, I’d bring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, which I try to read a couple times a year.

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Title: The Dead Do Not Improve: A Novel
Binding: Hardcover
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