Watching TV with the Red Chinese Analysis

Luke Whisnant

Watching TV with the Red Chinese

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.