Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Slant by Timothy Wang

James, an Asian college student who likes video games and romantic comedies, decides he's gay. With his intensely logical and linear MIT mind, he identifies all the parts of himself he believes are offensive to others, and methodically changes them one by one. In the pursuit of total self transformation--including body, skin, hair, clothes, personality, and behavior--James becomes completely lost and bewildered, having lost any trace of the person he once was. Along the way, he betrays himself several times for love, lust, and money--engaging in dangerous drug use and sex to please his first boyfriend, Stan, and manipulating his admirer, Michael, to pay for plastic surgery on his Asian eyes. After Stan dumps him, obsessed with love, he'll do anything to get Stan back...
Slant is Timothy Wang's debut novel. I could say that this is a coming out story because in a way it is, but that would be deceiving and simplistic to say the least. Instead, Wang places the main focus of this novel on racism experienced by Asian men within the gay community. He maintains that focus through excellent writing and by using the strong narrative voice of the main character James, a young man whose initial confusion about sexual identity is compounded by ethnicity.

As the only son of overprotective Chinese immigrant parents who migrated to the Midwest, James finds himself out of his depth, isolated and lost, while attempting to navigate Boston's gay community during his sophomore year at MIT. After meeting and losing his first 'boyfriend' Stan, a gorgeous bad boy who becomes an obsession, James changes.

James hates everything about himself, from his Asian features to his upbringing. The fact that he is often rejected for being Asian in the mostly preppy-oriented Boston gay community reinforces his self-loathing. After losing Stan, he embarks in an obsessive and self-destructive path filled with humiliations, sexual exploits, drugs, and eventually ends up cynically and emotionally manipulating a lover for money.

During this downward spiral into self-degradation, cultural and ethnic shame, Wang strongly conveys the anger and resentment James feels toward himself, his parents, the gay community, and mainstream society.
I was getting an education in gay culture and didn't like the program. I hated the way everything was segmented. For such a small community, people were divided along the lines of the different races and the different types of desires. There were the "potatoes" and "burritos," the "chocolates" and the "rice." Then there were the "bears," the "daddies" and the "twinks." The white jocks that were the most popular in high school were still the most popular in gay clubs, even the gay Asian clubs. Some white guys wanted to be black and some black guys wanted to be white. Some Asian guys wanted to be black or white. But, no black or white guys who wanted to be Asian.
Thankfully during James' raw tirade of 'hates,' Wang doesn't spare his main character from this malady or makes him out to be a victim. On the contrary, sadly through his self-loathing and frustrations James becomes a part of the whole as he exposes his own prejudices with more than a few judgmental statements of his own:
I hated older white men. They somehow thought that, even though they were in their sixties, they could still date an eighteen year old Asian boy. Much to my disgust, some Asian boys would date them.
The characters are strong and compelling in the almost real way in which they're rendered by the author. James as the Asian young man who goes from being awkwardly naive to cynically self-destructive while grasping for an identity; Stan as the charismatic, self-absorbed, reckless 'bad boy' who discards men like yesterday's news; and Michael, the preppy, wealthy young doctor who is portrayed as a good, if somewhat weak man, and is seen as an almost superficial, social snob, easily and ultimately willingly manipulated by James.

In Slant, Wang uses short chapters with a narrative voice that eases the reader into the story and gains strength and momentum as the full scope of the novel is revealed. The story flows as it maintains a quick, excellent pace with a strong plot and compelling characters that draw the reader from beginning to end, ending on a rather ambiguous note.

On a personal note I'll say that I devoured Mr. Wang's debut novel. After closing the last page, those last few ambiguous chapters left me thinking about his characters and their journey. I'm still thinking about James... and that's what it's all about, right? Timothy Wang is working on his second novel, I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

Category: Contemporary Gay Fiction
Series: None
Publisher/Release Date: Tincture, June 15, 2011
Source: ARC Lethe Press
Grade: B+

Visit Timothy Wang here.

8 comments:

  1. This sounds like it has lots of angst. Not necessarily a bad thing. It sounds very intriguing. Good review Hils. :P

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  2. It sounds complicated but interesting. :)

    Great review.

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  3. Good review, Hils :) I'm glad you enjoyed the book, since you were looking forward to it :)

    It's interesting to see the gay community from an Asian's POV...

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  4. Lovely review Hils. This sounds like an amazing book, but...as ames said, a book with a lot of heartbreak.

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  5. Ames, you're right the main character, James, goes through a lot of anguish while trying to find himself. It's a great story. I just had to know what happened to him.

    Alex, this is actually an easy, quick read. The subject matter itself is another story. I loved the different POV.

    Nath yes, as you know I was really looking forward to reading Slant, and the book turned out to be a good one. It made sense to me that some of the same prejudices that riddle mainstream society would be part of of the gay community. Reading about racism from the Asian POV was quite interesting for me.

    Orannia, this was a great read! Yes, there's heartbreak... but the story is more about James finding his own true voice and identity. It's a great story.

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  6. Hils,

    Your review of Slant is excellent. I read it last night but it was too late to comment so here I am tonight!

    I will definitely be reading this book. The subject-matter of the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in terms of not only sexuality but also ethnicity and culture very much interests me. Equally interesting is that the author writes about the complexities and layers of marginalization - a gay man within a predominantly heterosexual society, an Asian man within a predominantly white society, and a gay Asian man within (what I assume based on your review) a predominantly white gay community.

    Once again, excellent review!

    Indie

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  7. Indie my friend... you once again hit the nail on the head, that's exactly where Wang goes with Slant. James' struggle is multi layered and then some...

    I think you'll definitely like this one. I would love to read your thoughts after you read it. :)

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  8. ...but the story is more about James finding his own true voice and identity.

    I love such books! They just...grab me by the heart :)

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