No Good Very Bad Asian
(C&R Press, 2019)
Any writer who attempts comedy has considered the maxim, “Being funny is never enough.” They have, likewise, considered the corollary, “Until it is.” As a writer, you can be funny enough—accepting the innate subjectivity of humor—that little to nothing else matters. You can make your reader forget holes in character, plot, and story by achieving the comic writer’s Holy Grail of making them laugh again and again.
But simply being funny isn’t enough for literary comedy (or its subcategories satire and black comedy). The balance between comic and serious is crucial in literary comedy. Stray too far in either direction and you fail, becoming simplistic on one hand, boring on the other. While a perfect balance is admittedly impossible, never mind a matter of taste, Leland Cheuk does an admirable job in his latest, No Good Very Bad Asian, achieving a true synthesis of heart and humor highlighted by the fluidity of his first-person voice and a steady diet of sharp turns of prose.
Sirius Lee, the stage name of Cheuk’s protagonist and narrator (born Hor Luk Lee) is a young Chinese-American comedian. Growing up in the near-poverty of a cramped apartment he shares with his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother (whom he refers to alternately as The Lee Council and The Yellow Panthers), Sirius is sent to a toney, primarily white, Hollywood high school. After the all-too-familiar bullying and racial abuse, he’s befriended by one Veronica Razzmatazz, reality TV star and daughter of B-list comedian Johnny Razzmatazz.
Veronica takes Sirius home, and he soon becomes a character in the Razzmatazz reality series progressing from a job as Johnny’s assistant to one as his joke writer. Ultimately, Sirius becomes Johnny’s comedy protégé and they hit the road together, during which Sirius’s lingering infatuation with Veronica is forgotten for a time. Months later, post-divorce for Johnny, the two crash-land in an NYC loft, Sirius having become what passes as the narcissistic Johnny’s significant other—something between adoptive son, sidekick, and best friend. But only for a while. In America, we learn, relationships can be just as fleeting as acceptance and success.
The novel spans 19 years of Sirius’s life (from the ages of 14 to 33) in which time he becomes extremely successful in an objective sense. Television, movies, HBO specials, and sold-out stand-up shows: these are what Sirius comes to know. In this time, he amasses millions, growing famous and ever lonelier; the performer’s common companions of drugs, alcohol, depression, and bad behavior eventually take center stage in his life as they have, with disastrous consequences, in Johnny’s. As Sirius becomes more like Johnny, he eventually grows alienated from him, has a romance with Veronica (who finds Sirius newly attractive as he basks in the glow of fame), and generally comes to look on in a sense of inertia as his life skids from A-list success into a series of rehab visits and attempted comebacks.
Eventually, Sirius does get clean. With Johnny and Veronica seemingly in the past, he meets his wife-to-be, Tina. Something like domestic bliss follows, culminating in the birth of Sirius’s daughter Maryann, or M: the book’s epistolary addressee. This, of course, is not where the story ends. To borrow a term from magic, this is simply the turn; the prestige will see Sirius and all four generations of his family contend with the costs of success in America.
As a writer, Leland Cheuk has a varied palette of talents. Most striking is his novel comic sense and timing, abilities that routinely produce surprisingly humorous results. You can tell as you read this that Cheuk has done his research, going so far as to spend years doing standup. His imagination is strong but precise, blending figment and reality to produce his tale of the entirely fictitious Sirius Lee. Ultimately, this book is exactly what it says it is, the story of a man who sees himself (and, for various reasons, always has) as a No Good Very Bad Asian. Caught between his parents’ glorified memories of the China they fled and the life he knows in America, Sirius is at odds with himself—his Americanized name (and its implied pun) is symbolic of this conflict.
No Good Very Bad Asian is a quick read, consistently funny, and surprisingly poignant at times. Cheuk achieves the very difficult balance necessary for successful literary comedy, pointing to a bright future. His fertile imagination given still freer rein, it would be interesting to see what Cheuk might come up with. I, for one, will be looking forward to that whatever that is.