Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tripmaster Monkey is Kingston’s answer to critics who, unable to decide whether her earlier book-length narratives (The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, 1976 and China Men, 1980) are factual or fictional, hesitate to give full credit for her work. Kingston writes Tripmaster Monkey as a testimony of her abilities and as a proof of her belief that fiction is by no means more difficult to write than memoirs and family histories. More important, having told the story of her parents’ generation in two separate narratives, Kingston finds it appropriate to shift attention to her own generation, who have come of age as biculturals with problems, solutions, imaginations, and visions of their own. Tripmaster Monkey is only the beginning of an ongoing statement about such a generation, with Wittman as its impressive spokesman.

What Wittman has achieved in the novel has great symbolic significance for many Chinese Americans. Combining two kinds of wisdoms culled from two cultures, Wittman has put the history of America into the perspective of the Cantonese operas that once sustained the communities of Chinese pioneers who helped to develop the frontiers of the United States. By involving the community in reviving the Chinese theater, Wittman has fulfilled his personal quest as well as given a new life to an old tradition. Above all, through Wittman, Kingston has added an indelible historical dimension to the myth of the American Dream.

Wittman also addresses issues that concern the United States as a whole. As Kingston suggests, nothing in modern life is immune to Wittman’s cornucopian if cynical commentaries. Impulsive as he is, Wittman is actually quite systematic in his protest against the dehumanizing condition of modern society, which at its worst moments has given rise to the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and the Vietnam War. Through his cross-cultural and trans-temporal play, Wittman is stating that war and its propaganda ought to stop, that history has proven how even the best of warriors with the best tactics and the best weapons have invariably lost, and that peace, not war, is the real revolution of the modern world.