Blog - R.F. Kuang, Criticism, and Metatext - Part 2
November 17, 2023
Continued from Part 1
Part 2 A Gallimaufry of Observations
I don't have a unifying thread for this section, but these are some things that struck my fancy in thinking about these books.
The writing in Babel is mostly mechanically invisible and is neither awkward nor elegant. That's not necessarily a criticism, just a description. I'd say it was slightly more elevated than a standard airport read, if in a higher concept novel. I didn't feel it was a slog to get through at any point, though at at 540 pages I think it is a bit longer than it needs to be, especially given some of the macro issues I'm about to get to.
I wouldn't say it is paced poorly but it is structured such that it has an uneven sense of escalation which made it hard to tell how much was left. There were several spots where I thought "surely, this is the start of the climax" and then it just... wasn't. The real climax when it does arrive, arrives hard and I think from there to the end is the most effective, if bleak, part of the book.
And one of the effects of the "false climaxes" is that there's some plot threads that really do end up kind of being superfluous on the large scale. I daresay the Secret Society in the book that takes up a not insignificant amount of real estate could probably be cut entirely without losing a whole lot. Please don't misunderstand, there was definitely some interesting stuff there, and the Society's ambiguous utility is itself an interesting comment on the nature and resilience of giant power structures. But I'm not sure I would have felt like the story was missing anything if it was never there.
With regards to the world building the explanations are handled pretty well with really just one absolute clunker of conversation where basically all of the characters are transparently saying stuff they already know for the benefit of the reader. And all for a concept that's really kind of obvious on its face. It was bad enough that June and I independently had the exact same note about the exact same scene. The fact that it was such an outlier kind of shows how pretty good the rest of the setup was.
Overall I liked that the magic silver, which has been present in the world since at least the Roman Empire, is just sort of an omnipresent thing that exists and is just part of the landscape, even if people don't know how it works. In our world, we don't constantly stop, marvel, and exposit at each other about the miracle that is automobiles or airplanes. We just accept it. The people of Babel do the same.
Most of the silver effects are pretty subtle, so it doesn't require a dump truck of cognitive dissonance to think we'd get a similar world to the one we live in. It does strain credulity a little bit, but it didn't really bother me.
The silver system is genuinely a pretty cool idea. The concept is that you inscribe a word onto one side of the silver brick, then the same word translated into another language on the other, and the slight differences in meaning manifest in the proximity. "The stuff that gets lost when we move between one language and another." One example from the novel:
He let Robin extract it from its fixture, then turned the bar around to show him the inscription. On one side: garden; on the other, the character [Chinese character] which could mean a landscape garden, but more generally evoked a place for private withdrawal, to retreat from the world, with connotations of ritual purification, cleansing, alms-giving, and Daoist acts of repentance.
"The idea is to make their gardens nicer and quieter than the hubbub of Oxford allows. Keeps out the riffraff."
The limitations are that it only works reliably for people so fluent in both languages that they can dream in them. (How much metaphor is involved here is a little up for debate). Also, false cognates don't work. So words like "embarazada" and "embarrassed" which look like they might have the same root but don't, would not work. ("Embarazada" means pregnant in Spanish). And even for real cognates, if the meanings have diverged too much then nothing will happen.
In this world, languages lose their ability to control silver as they become more universal. So as the world shrinks and cultures have more exchanges, the familiarity leads to to a reduction of efficacy as meanings and usages migrate towards each other. By the 1830s, the European languages are starting to not work which drives the Empire to "recruit" translators from it's colonial and imperial territories.
This isn't a rigorously worked out system, so there are definitely holes in it if you hold to too much scrutiny. It can feel a little underbaked, but maybe that's a genre expectation thing? Like, as a hard magic fantasy story it's not super worked out, but the story isn't about magic. It's about colonialism and language becomes yet another resource to be exploited. Through that lens, maybe it doesn't matter so much if the system is a little squishy? And for someone like me who is fascinated with language and thinks a lot about translation, it is a great idea.
The surrounding world beyond the central conceit isn't all that deep and sometimes doesn't feel like much more than a veneer over our world. June noticed this more than I did, but it's a fair criticism that I do agree with. As a small and subtle example, in all of Babel (the translation department's facility, that is), there's not much curiosity about how and why it works. In a university full of scholars protecting the most important technology in the world there's no floor dedicated to, say, running experiments and attempting to understand the mechanism. This is happening around the time Faraday was working out electromagnetism and von Mohl was witnessing cell division under a microscope, so rigorous scientific study was definitely a thing. Stuff like that would make no difference in the plot but would make the world feel more lived in.
Regarding that example in specific, though, I suppose there's an argument to be made that it's a commentary about systems of exploitation by hegemonic power. They don't care why it works. They just need to squeeze as much out as quickly as possible to maintain the status quo. Meet the quota, get profits up, and be quiet.
Unreliable Narrator, Anxious Narration
Whereas Babel, except for a few brief interludes, is entirely in third person, Yellowface is entirely in first person. It's irreverent and comic, and there are definitely parts I thought were actively funny. Most of the comedy comes from Juniper's bewilderment at an absurd situation or her anxious bumbling responses. She is kind of a mess of anxieties and imposter syndrome and doesn't exactly scream narrative reliability, but she's an explicable character with understandable motivations. She may not be a great person, but she manages to be a sympathetic one, in part because so often she seems out of her depth. She is not a master criminal.
She responds with realistic inconsistency when stressed or challenged. When she's first talking about the manuscript for The Last Front, she says of Athena:
She has the confidence, the understated and lyrical prose necessary to tell such a heavy story without coming across as pompous, juvenile, or sanctimonious.
She later says the opposite, but mostly as a post hoc justification for softening the less comfy parts of Athena's story. Recall this:
Athena's original text is almost embarrassingly biased; the French and British soldiers are cartoonishly racist. I get she's trying to make a point about discrimination within the Allied front, but these scenes are so hackneyed that they defy belief. It throws the reader out of the story.
It was starting to feel heavy-handed, repetitive.
It rings true to how we as a species rationalize our behaviors.
There are a few things in the writing early on that I initially thought were missteps that now I think were maybe intentional. A lot of the internet culture slang stuff probably will lose it's meaning over time. Twitter isn't even Twitter anymore. Will the references to subreddits and specific social media platforms mean anything in 20 years? But then, again, Yellowface is a satirical book about a particular slice of cultural. The head-up-ass-ness of being chronically online is probably part of the point.
Pop culture references in a text tends to be a sticking point for me in art as they can kill any pretension of timelessness. That's more of a me problem though and I don't really hold it against the book.
One that came up really early that irked me was this description of Athena's manuscript:
But here Athena does something similar to what Christopher Nolan does in the movie Dunkirk: instead of following one particular story, she layers disparate narratives and perspectives together to form a moving mosaic, a crowd crying out in unison. It's cinematic in effect; you can almost see it in your head, documentary style: a multiplicity of voices unburying the past.
My initial thought was "Why did she frame it like that?" Non-linear storytelling has been a literary technique from before movies were a thing. The Sound and the Fury did it almost 100 years ago. And to call a literary technique cinematic in effect is kind of funny.
But The Last Front as Dunkirk is later articulated again by different characters, I think more than once. The last time is by a couple of vaguely dim publishing bros looking to option the novel into a movie. So I think it was a less a weird writing tick than a joke about how modern readers (and writers) engage with writing through the lens of film.
I am really ambivalent on the ending plot mechanics in Yellowface. The four dimensional chess that Candice Lee must have played to get Juniper to admit on tape that she stole The Last Front didn't really land and felt kind of out of nowhere. I was able to hand wave it because I do think the ending supported the ideas and characters fairly well, if very bluntly.
I originally thought this was a misdirect. After the second scandal erupts, Juniper considers writing her next book about her friendship with Athena and in it she would tell the truth about what happened with The Last Front under the guise of a fictionalized account. (The OJ Simpson "If I Did It..." strategy.) I was kind of hoping the novel was taking the same approach as the 2002 film masterpiece Adaptation, where screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), struggling to adapt a sprawling New Yorker piece about flowers, writes himself into his own screenplay. The movie goes absolutely off the rails at the end and the viewer realizes that the movie they are watching is the screenplay Kaufman has now completely lost control of. (Adaptation is amazing. Please check it out.) Alas, 'twas not to be. Oh well.
Yellowface ends with Juniper gearing up for another round of damage control and the outcome in doubt, so while the end confrontation with Candice was kind of jarring it didn't really feel like a deus ex machina. We don't see if Juniper was able to retake control of the narrative or if anyone believed Candice about what happened.
Is Athena an Author Insert?
Coming back to some of the things I said in part 1, is Athena the Kuang self-insert?
You get to see very, very little of Athena directly. By page, like 12, she's dead. And the rest is either her being talked about by people who may or may not have known her all that well or being remembered by a narrator with complicated feelings about her.
While her public image is spotless, in private she's portrayed as occasionally insufferable, pretentious, and maybe prone to the humble-brag. Bearing in mind, of course, that this is all filtered through Juniper's point of view.
Early on Juniper tends towards characterizing Athena as just kind of an acquaintance whose success she's vaguely or overtly jealous of. In her publicity tour she takes great pains to romanticize Athena and their relationship wherever possible, ostensibly as a cover story. i.e. "We were such good friends that she inspired me to look into this period in her people's history and encouraged me along the way."
But later in the novel Juniper reveals a particularly ugly story of Athena appropriating her sexual assault and publishing it in a short story without Juniper's involvement. This type of thing comes up several times. (And ties pretty directly into the "Who can tell what story?" theme of the work.)
And Candice, a Korean-American editor deeply critical of Juniper and "her" story, says bluntly near the end of the novel something like "Screw Athena. We all hated that bitch." I'm barely even paraphrasing here.
So all in all kind of a weird characterization if Kuang's goal was to mythologize herself. There is a part when Juniper talks about her sister's reaction to reading her work and says this, which I think is relevant:
Rory did read my debut novel, though she didn't understand it at all - she kept asking why the sisters were so insufferable, which baffled me, because the sisters were supposed to be us.
I definitely thing Kuang is at least chuckling here.
My suspicion is the Athena-as-author-insert is kind of a red herring and Kuang is making a point about people just assuming it's the case because they are both Chinese women and of course she would write herself into that character.
I think Kuang is also maybe making a criticism of the idea that your identity is parsable and directly applicable in your creation. Personally, I always find psychological analysis of an author purely from their work to be pretty fraught territory. Not terribly useful at best and actively misleading at worst.
Could Juniper be an insert? Does Kuang have imposter syndrome and anxiety? Did she write herself into both characters? Neither? That I think any of these possibilities could be argued is a reason I really like this book.
Or did Kuang steal this manuscript from a friend who died and this is her confession?!?!
(Joke. She did not.)
Who Can Tell What Story?
There's a lot of ideas in Yellowface. Yes, there's satire about the publishing industry, performative outrage, criticism, internet mobs, white defensiveness, and the ways we as a culture engage with novels, but "Who can tell what story?" is, to me, the singular question underpinning the novel.
I read one brief interview with Kuang on NPR and she explicitly talks about this question:
To quote Kuang:
And I think that a lot of our standards about cultural appropriation are language about "don't write outside of your own lane. You can only write about this experience if you've had that experience."
I don't think they make a lot of sense. I think they're actually quite limiting and harmful, and backfire more often on marginalized writers than they push forward conversations about widening opportunities. You would see Asian American writers being told that you can't write anything except about immigrant trauma or the difficulties of being Asian American in the U.S. And I think that's anathema to what fiction should be. I think fiction should be about imagining outside our own perspective, stepping into other people's shoes and empathizing with the other.
I didn't read Kuang's interview until after I finished the novel so I didn't know what she thought about the issue going in, but there is a character in the book who says, almost word for word, the same thing about Asian American writers being boxed into immigrant trauma stories. So I wasn't exactly surprised when I read the interview.
It is interesting, though, that so many of the arguments in favor of that view are pitched by an unreliable narrator who is pretty definitively in the wrong, though maybe for a different reason.
Juniper says anyone should be allowed to tell any story but it’s generally a defensive response and some of the changes she makes to The Last Front are explicitly whitewash-y. And that's one of the loci of criticism against the presumed "majority culture" taking stories from a minority culture and trying to profit from them. There will be an inevitable distortion as the stories are made more palatable, consciously or not, for the comfort of the majority audience.
The novel explicitly shows that Juniper did in fact write a not-inconsequential part of what was published as The Last Front. But it was not her idea, her research, or even her first draft. Athena had living relatives and her estate saw none of the profits from the wildly successful book.
I guess it's just framed in a way that really lends itself to Discourse on the subject. And Kuang is a woman of Asian descent writing a story about a white woman using a story by a woman of Asian descent. So there's layers here.
I suspect part of the point is that there is a distinction between cultural appropriation, which as a, in theory, neutral academic term can be done more or less respectfully, and just larcenous appropriation in specific. We really don't get enough of Juniper's contribution to The Last Front, to judge the former and she definitely did the latter.
Those two types of appropriation get conflated a lot in the novel by Juniper, who uses the cultural appropriation argument as a shield against the larcenous one, like a straw man. She ties the two issues together and refutes the one that has some moral wiggle room.
For a really interesting discussion on cultural appropriation, check out Lindsay Ellis's video essay "Pocahontas Was a Mistake, and Here's Why." The part about appropriation starts at 12:26 but the whole video is definitely worth a watch. (Ellis's whole oeuvre is worth a watch.)
In one rather amusing moment Juniper gets called out for the racist stereotyping in a specific section of The Last Front and she exasperatedly responds in the narrative with “I didn’t even write that part!” That could be either condemnation of a knee jerk and tribal internet or a statement that some bad tropes are so pervasive and internalized that even Athena uses them. I suspect polemicists on either side will probably convince themselves the novel 100% agrees with them but I think there's some ambiguity.
This is Actually Your Fault
In Dan Olsen's video about the "jaw droppingly racist" Day Above Ground song "Asian Girlz" he talks about the predictable response arc when someone gets called on let's say "questionable" behavior. "...it always passes through an accusative phase and never settles on any sense of ownership. The accusative phase is the part where they make it your fault for being offended. Your fault for not getting their humor or missing the point." (I recommend watching that entire video.)
I think Kuang is definitely critiquing safe low stakes white progressivism. Juniper considers herself an ally but as soon she gets any flak it's kind of impressive how quickly she lapses into accusation and deflection.
After she takes some heat for being deceptive and changing her pen name from June Hayward to the Chinese sounding Juniper Song, her defense is:
Isn't it racist, in a sense, to assume my race based on my last name?
And add in some hair-splitting for good measure:
I never lied. That's important. I never pretended to be Chinese, or made up life experiences that I didn't have. It's not fraud, what we're doing. We're just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn't that say far more about them than me?
And there may be some truth in there about the "preconceptions about who can write what" but at the same time "outdated" seems an odd choice since the idea of cultural appropriation as bad is relatively new to the mainstream discourse. And all in defense of something she literally stole.
She trades in rhetoric that, sadly, a pretty common shield to criticism:
"Actually," I tell my shampoo bottle, "just because Chinese people were being discriminated against doesn't mean that they couldn't be racist as well. And actually, it's well documented that the Chinese laborers did not get along with Arabs and Moroccans according to one of my sources, the Chinese would call them 'black devils.' Interethnic conflicts are a thing, you know.
Juniper rolls her eyes when Candice uses the term micro-aggression in response to a pretty unambiguous and almost textbook case of racial obliviousness. Juniper's agent Brett had suggested Candice, a Korean-American, be the sensitivity read for "Juniper's" story about Chinese people. Candice, who insists a sensitivity reader is appropriate, is reflexively dismissed as being too sensitive. Juniper, who doesn't like her liberal racial sensitivities questioned, and is potentially worried she'll get a question about the work she can't answer, sees Candice as an irritating obstacle.
So Juniper's an ally until it makes her life a little harder or involves a person she finds annoying.
(This is a tangential but I think there's another aspect to the sensitivity reader debate. I don't remember if it's explicit in the text, but Juniper no doubt feels like Candice would not have insisted on a sensitivity reader if it were Athena submitting the same work. But... maybe she should have? Athena was of Chinese descent, but she was still an American writing about the experiences of people from China serving in Europe. Is there a statement here about how ethnic descent, regardless of cultural identity, is perceived as a "close enough" stand in for an entire country regardless of how far apart the cultures actually are? Isn't that just another form of stereotypic reduction?)
After the first accusation of plagiarism surfaces, the situation tips into absurdity, albeit a very plausible absurdity, when the right wing media makes Juniper a symbol of resistance to cancel culture gone amok and encourages its viewers to buy her book. Though she doesn't like being their poster child, she quietly takes the defense and the sales.
The whole mess highlights the performative aspect of both the internet pilers-on from the left and the right wingers who buy up a book they are not going to read just to stick it to the liberals. And just like in real life, algorithmic amplification means it's never quite clear how many of the really loud voices there actually are.
The term "cancelled" gets thrown out pretty liberally, though Juniper admits she wasn't actually cancelled, and her sales actually went up during The Last Front controversy. It takes a large mental toll on Juniper, getting relentlessly dragged in social media and, of course, getting death threats because "internet," but all told it blows over relatively quickly and would have likely stayed over if she hadn't made the mistake of using another work of Athena's as an opening to a wholly original novel. When someone finds the opening paragraphs of that novel in an old publication the entire thing blows up a second time.
Probably worth noting too that her publisher doesn't really care until it looks like she won't be able to sell any more books.
"It's the opposite of racist, because it's not targeting [them] It's just ignoring them." -Better of Ted, S1EP4 "Racial Sensitivity"
One of Juniper's defenses is that "It's not like I wrote from stereotypes." Which I suppose might be true in the The Last Front, though a lot of that might be because she didn't write most of it. But that statement is definitely not true in her inner monologue.
I think Kuang is playing with the idea that people tend to look at racism as only real racism if it's overt, intentional, and not complimentary.
The first thing Juniper says when she meets Athena's mother is essentially "Wow, it's really true that Asian women don't age." Later in the novel when she's thinking about her theoretical next novel about her and Athena's friendship being made into a theoretical movie, she says this:
Florence Pugh will play me. That girl from Crazy Rich Asians will play Athena. The score will consist entirely of classical music. It'll win all the awards.
Constance Wu, award nominated actress in both TV and film, is just "The Woman from Crazy Rich Asians." Juniper can't be bothered to get her name right and she doesn't even seem to notice. That line is one reason I found Wu's pull quote, the one about knife-fights and clowns, to be particularly amusing.
In defending one of the changes she made to Athena's story, she says:
Athena's draft only made a brief mention of the wrongful accusation, but my version turns it into a heartwarming illustration of Chinese virtue and honesty.
Which is either drifting into or already paying rent in Noble Savage Trope territory.
Another defense she makes against the appropriation accusation that I found really funny was:
I'm not obsessed with stealing Asian culture - I mean, before The Last Front, I had no interest in modern Chinese history whatsoever.
This...doesn't make her look better. "I had no interest in this thing until I could steal it to use for profit."
Some Funny Parts
I don't really have anything in particular to say about these next things other than I thought they were funny.
When trying to decide what her next project should be she pitches to herself a story where she's "maybe investigating my mom claiming to be Cherokee?" Um, Juniper...don’t…don’t do that.
Regarding another theoretical next project:
A YA rom-com about a girl in love with a boy who's been dead for a hundred years. (This one is all vibes and no plot, and based largely on my undergraduate crush on Nathan Hale's statue on campus.)
Juniper having a crush on a statue is amazing, and I suspect "all vibes no plot" is a joke about at least the stereotypical YA paranormal romance.
Would I recommend this book? Sort of. It's got some genuinely interesting ideas, it's an easy read and it ends very strongly. None of the issues I talked about above were deal breakers for me, and though some of the them were pervasive they didn't offset the experience.
It might depend on what your usual poison is for reading. If you have recently finished an absolute masterpiece that is maybe one of the best books in the Western Canon (like June did with Anna Karenina), your appreciation of Babel's good qualities might be blunted. Taken for what it is, an easy reading historical fiction novel with a supernatural twist, it's pretty good, if maybe a touch too long.
It had the potential to be great but instead was, like, fine.
I definitely would recommend this one. In some ways this is the opposite of Babel which is plot heavy and fairly unambiguously themed. Yellowface's plot is really basic but there are an awful lot of things to chew on. I took the abundance of ideas and plausible interpretations not as an indication of unfocused or poorly thought-out writing, but one of depth and nuance.
A lot of the writing criticisms I had for Babel either weren't present here or fit the context of the story.
I'll leave you with this from R.F. Kuang, via Juniper Song nee June Hayward:
Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much.