Grantland editor and New York Times Magazine contributor Jay Caspian Kang divides his first novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, between alternating protagonists: Philip Kim, an MFA graduate eking out an existence working for a dubious tech company and struggling to write, and Detective Sid Finch, a grizzled surfer with a bitter attitude toward everything but his wife. When a freak shooting kills Kim’s elderly neighbor, he gets caught up in Finch’s investigation, and the case burrows deep into a ridiculous underworld.
Kang has written at length about gambling addiction and the lingering “fog of losing, which feels like a seething, dirty steam in the veins,” and that’s exactly the claustrophobic, shadowy San Francisco haze Philip Kim navigates as he tries to escape whatever impending danger waits around every corner. While hiding in fear, Kim narrates flashbacks of his adolescent experience, most importantly the Virginia Tech massacre committed by Cho Seung-Hui, similar to Kim because he was Korean and a creative-writing student. Kim returns again and again to meditation on how Cho’s acts affected Koreans, and intricate analysis of Cho’s plays and fiction writing, a lurid way to avoid falling into stereotypical ethnic literature trappings.
It’s a lot of navel-gazing, but it’s compelling, astutely observed self-indulgence interspersed with a glossary’s worth of pop-culture references. (The book’s title is a lyric from The Silver Jews’ “Tennessee.”) Which is why it’s so important that the other half of the book, written in close third-person perspective from Detective Finch’s point of view, balances out that static introspection with a lot of pulp detective work. Finch isn’t a private eye, but he might as well be after separating from his partner and tracking down leads on his own through vengeful hippie restaurateurs, surfing locals of the cold north Pacific, and the standard femme fatale. San Francisco landmarks play key roles, but not the standard ones. Kim’s neighbor turns out to be a once-famous porn actress, and the San Francisco Armory, now an enormous pornography headquarters, plays a large role in the plot.
Kang recently got caught up in an argument over whether specific elements in The Dead Do Not Improve are autobiographical. He’s Korean, grew up in North Carolina, and got an MFA from Columbia, which is suspiciously similar to his protagonist Philip Kim. But all the obsessive, detailed annotations about what’s real and what’s fiction in the novel doesn’t matter in the slightest.
What Kang creates in The Dead Do Not Improve is the push and pull between native inhabitants of a city—lifers who have seen the change in scenery and demographics, the progress or lack thereof, and the new generation, moving in without the lifelong experience. It loses the thread of compelling mystery somewhere around the middle, and as the chapters grow shorter and Philip Kim and Finch are drawn closer together, their fate ceases to matter. What’s important, and what lingers after the book peters out in a haze of gunfire and an epilogue that ties up inconsequential loose ends, is the mood Kang evokes about city-dwelling, especially as a transplant: how the city can feel dark, foreboding, and uninviting, trying damn hard to spit out anyone unable to put up with the worst it has to offer.