Watching TV with the Red Chinese (Magill Book Reviews)
In WATCHING TV WITH THE RED CHINESE, Luke Whisnant looks at everyday life in America through the eyes of three Chinese graduate students and their American friend, Dexter Mitchell. Attending school in Cleveland, the three Chinese students spend considerable time in their sparsely furnished apartment watching television, especially the new programs and commercials that reveal so much about the American social landscape. Their eccentricities fascinate fellow graduate student Billy Owens, who makes a documentary of their time in the United States. Their naive response to the country also intrigues their neighbor Dexter Mitchell, a struggling theater worker through whom most of the story is told. Mitchell is happy to help his new friends come to some understanding of the customs of the country — until he learns that one of the Chinese has taken his place in the life of Mitchell’s sometime girlfriend, Suzanne Betts.
The violence that lurks in the background of the lives of most Americans comes to haunt the Chinese, too. One of them, Chen Li-Zhong, learns firsthand about racism when he is mugged by two young blacks. In the climactic final scene of the novel, Chen is killed in a scuffle with another of Suzanne’s boyfriends who has been stalking him for weeks.
Whisnant manages to weave a fascinating mosaic of American life by combining Mitchell’s first-person narrative with the commentary provided by the Chinese themselves as they perform for Billy Owens’ camera. Emerging from this montage is the notion that modern American values are expressed by — and simultaneously shaped by — television. The common bond created by the visual images is contrasted throughout the novel with the complexity of spoken language, with its multiple meanings and its ability to divide as well as unite. The novel’s philosophical subtext is carefully muted, however, beneath a comical and fast-paced story that offers more than a few laughs and occasional tugs at readers’ heartstrings.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 18, 1992, p. N11.
Booklist. CXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 35.
Boston Globe. October 10, 1992, p. 34.
Denver Post. October 25, 1992, p. F8.
Detroit News and Free Press. October 4, 1992, p. G7.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, July 1, 1992, p. 813.
Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 153.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 18, 1992, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, July 13, 1992, p. 45.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 3, 1993, p. 6.
Watching TV with the Red Chinese (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The first thing likely to strike readers of Watching TV with the Red Chinese is how entertaining it is. The story certainly has strong comic overtones. Three Chinese communists arrive in Cleveland, Ohio, to attend graduate school. They take up residence in an apartment building, where they make friends with Dexter Mitchell, a down-and-out theater worker. They continually pump him for information about such diverse topics as the etiquette of shopping and the art of dealing with American women. They are entertained by various other members of the university community, for whom they are curiosities. From the black family in their building, they learn some of the intricacies of American football. The youngest member of the trio, Chen, tries hard to adopt American ways, going so far as to steal Mitchell’s girlfriend. Throughout, the Chinese are perplexed, sometimes angered, and often mystified by the complexities of American society; their verbal and behavioral faux pas offer more than a few laughs for readers who are fully conversant in American metaphors and customs.
What the Chinese do most often, however, is watch television. Hour after hour, they sit in front of the television in their sparsely furnished apartment, mesmerized by whatever crosses the screen: old films, talk shows, situation comedies, and sports. More than any books or lectures, more than conversations with their American friends, the images on television provide these transplanted communists with a vision of America that becomes for them a substitute for the real world outside their apartment. The humor turns to horror when, in the final scenes of the work, Chen is killed accidentally in a scuffle with a former lover of Mitchell’s girlfriend.
Author Luke Whisnant made a superb choice for the narrator of this comic escapade with its sad, tragic ending. Dexter Mitchell is sophisticated enough to provide a stark contrast to the naïve Chinese, yet sufficiently unsettled in his personal life to be of interest to readers in his own right. He describes himself as being twenty-four, single, and straight, and adds incidentally that he is white. He is, he summarizes, “just another mongrel American.” This self-effacing sobriquet glosses over the fact that, like so many of his fellow Americans, Mitchell is far from being simplistic. Furthermore, he is an actor by profession—or, more correctly, a failed actor who now works backstage in a small theater supported by government grants and private charity. His profession gives him the perspective needed to tell such a story: He sees the world through a veil of irony.
The novel is organized along loose chronological lines, as Whisnant allows his narrator to wander from episode to episode, developing the story as he meanders from idea to idea. Beginning in the middle of action, Mitchell informs the reader about his on again-off again relationship with Suzanne Betts and about his strange affinity for the three Chinese neighbors who seek his counsel about all things American. Whisnant further roots his story in the American experience by setting it in Cleveland, which his narrator describes as “smelter of ore and refiner of oil,” “defaulter on federal and state loans,” “home of 573,822 honest American consumers,” a “wonderful town” “replete with possibilities and infused throughout with the vibrant sulfured air of inspired midwestern industry.” The city is a kind of America in microcosm, harboring all the dangers and prejudices of the country while providing the opulence of consumer products and services that overwhelm the Chinese visitors.
The complexity of the story is mirrored in its narrative structure. Mitchell’s folksy reminiscence is interrupted by sections of audio clips and scriptwriters’ descriptions from a film being made by a fellow graduate student, Billy Owens. Finding the Chinese to be an unusual subject, Owens decides to take advantage of their wonderment about the American scene by turning it into an unusual film. Like Mitchell, Owens recognizes that the Chinese are mesmerized by television, and his film capitalizes on that fascination by focusing attention on the way television becomes a form of reality for them.
Owens’ film is an internal metaphor of the novel itself. Titled Watching TV with the Red Chinese, it is a...
(The entire section is 1775 words.)