(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kingston says that Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, her first true novel, was written after she had exhausted all the stories she knew about China. Yet, its title belies that claim for it reflects the novel’s debt to the classic Chinese epic Journey to the West, wherein the king of the monkeys takes a trip to India in search of sacred scrolls. Nonetheless, the cultural amalgam that Kingston relishes is confirmed by her statement that she was thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Signifying Monkey when she wrote the book. A densely packed four hundred pages, it is the story of the pranks and high jinks of twenty-three-year-old Chinese American hippie playwright Wittman Ah Sing, who lives in San Francisco in 1963 under the reign of Governor “Ray Gun” (Reagan). The book covers two months, September and October. Wittman is as free-spirited, independent, and garrulous as Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century American poet who is his namesake, yet he is equally as Chinese as Monkey, the mythical trickster-saint who brought Buddhist scripture to China from India. Like Whitman, Wittman sings America and its multifarious facets, and the legacy he celebrates is the hallucinogenic culture of Berkeley in the 1960’s.

Wittman’s picaresque bohemian life is part serendipity and part fantastic journey, and his goal is to stage his epic dramatic production based on Chinese novels and folktales. Told in nine chapters of roughly equal length, the novel moves in a seamlessly chronological and fantastical story line, using third-person limited omniscient point of view. The reader accompanies Wittman on his adventures and is privy to his thoughts through the commentary of a wise, indulgent, and engagingly intrusive seer-narrator.

When the novel opens, Wittman has been out of college for a while and is puzzling about his future. As he walks the streets of San Francisco, he contemplates suicide in such a slapdash way that the reader cannot take him seriously. His observant mind and quick wit are attuned to nuances in the behavior of strangers and microscopic features of inanimate objects. Aboard a city bus, he reads aloud passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930), regaling (or at least not annoying) fellow passengers. He enjoys a cappuccino with Nanci Lee, a beautiful Asian acquaintance and aspiring actress to whom he is romantically attracted. When he brings her to his apartment and reads his poetry to her, however, she neither understands nor appreciates his work and walks out.

After working on a play all night long and sleeping for a few hours, Wittman goes to his...

(The entire section is 1111 words.)