Tripmaster Monkey is Maxine Hong Kingston’s portrait of the artist as a Chinese American who attempts to assert his identity by blending together the two sides of his heritage. Using the Vietnam War as the backdrop, Kingston has also captured the exuberant antiestablishment sensibility of the Bay Area, immortalizing the flower-power counterculture of the psychedelic 1960’s. Whereas the “tripmaster monkey” in the title alludes to the hero of a Chinese folktale and the hippies of American subculture, the “fake book” refers to the novel’s similarity to “music fake books,” which, according to Kingston, may contain many basic melodies or plots other people can develop.
The action begins with the depression of Wittman, a fifth-generation native Californian who is contemplating suicide every day after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. Working part-time as a toy salesman at a department store in San Francisco, Wittman, who aspires to be a writer, often feels alienated much the same way as the young poet in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), passages of which he recites as he goes about his daily business. Conscious of his Chineseness as well as his Americanness and conceited about his intellectual prowess, he looks for others of his kind. His first candidate is Nanci Lee, who aspires to be an actress. He dates her, shows her his trunk of poems, and declares his intention to write a play for her. Offended by her lack of sensitivity to his talents and identity crisis, however, he scares her away by acting crudely.
As the action progresses, Wittman encounters, in his workplace, a “stocking guy,” a beatnik-hermit who happens to have been published as a Yale Younger Poet. Though encouraged by him, Wittman finds his own job frustrating; after making clockwork toy monkeys perform simulated copulation on Barbie dolls in front...
(The entire section is 804 words.)