Don Lee’s first book, Yellow: Stories, presents an engrossing collection of psychologically intricate characters realized in a supple, elegant prose and woven into intriguing plots spiced with suspense and irony. The action and protagonists of these eight stories are located or originate in Rosarita Bay, a small town on the seacoast south of San Francisco. (Although the name Rosarita Bay is fictional, the town is recognizably Half Moon Bay.) Yellow, then, is a short story cycle (or composite novel) like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine(1984). However, by having location as a unifying device, Yellow is more like Winesburg, Ohio(1919), by Sherwood Anderson, and Dubliners (1914), by James Joyce. Indeed, like Joyce and Erdrich, whose protagonists are of specific ethnic groups, Lee’s protagonists in these stories are all Asian Americans—even though some were originally non-Asian when the stories first appeared in periodicals. Just as Dubliners departs from the norm by closing with the novella-length classic “The Dead,” so Yellow closes with the ambitious novella-length “Yellow.”
Lee’s volume leads off with “The Price of Eggs in China,” a lighthearted yet uneasy courtship tale involving a triangle of Asian Americans that also includes racial stereotyping, deception, criminality, and aesthetics. Dean Kaneshiro, a Japanese American, is a consummate artist of furniture making. At age thirty-eight he already has a chair collected by the New York Museum of Modern Art. His techniques and materials originate in the vanished pre-Meiji Japan. Eschewing nails and glue, he aspires to a Zen experience in furniture making. Dean is in love with unsuccessful poet Caroline Yip, to whom an insensitive reviewer has attached the ethnic slur of “Oriental Hair Poet No.1.” Her arch rival in love and art is successful Marcella Ahn, reviewed as “Oriental Hair Poet No.2.” (By this enumeration of the women, Lee not only mocks the ethnic stereotyping that the literary establishment falls into but also reminds his reader of the sorry history of Asian polygyny.) No. 2 has ordered a chair from Dean. As Dean sizes up No. 2’s buttocks for his work, Don Lee provides a sample of his own piquant, crisp, tongue-in-cheek prose: “He squatted and stared at it for a full ten seconds. It was a good butt, a firm, StairMastered butt, a shapely, surprisingly protuberant butt.” No. 1 becomes jealous of No. 2. To secure No. 1’s love, Dean (a mystery novel buff) frames No. 2 by perpetrating an elaborate crime on his collection of precious wood. Although all ends well enough, Lee’s intricate plot leaves Dean ironically unsure whether No.1 did not also frame No. 2 in such a way as to manipulate Dean into carrying out his framing scheme. In this wittily plotted, lighthearted, and elegantly told tale, love indeed triumphs, though deception must be practiced and the artist must sacrifice the material, if not the form, of his art.
The second story, “Voir Dire,” strikes a considerably more somber note. Hank Low Kwon is an idealistic public defender in the uncomfortable position of defending a cocaine-addicted child killer. Hank’s lawyer ex-wife, a Kuppie (Korean yuppie), scorns his idealism. His current girlfriend, Molly, is a blonde Amazon surfer and diving instructor able to floor Hank with a friendly punch, who announces that she is pregnant. Hank had wanted a child with his ex-wife, who preferred professional success instead. He is unsure he wants a child with Molly, whose biological clock is ticking away at thirty-five. He feels as co-opted in love as in work. In the closing scene, Molly challenges him: “Admit it. You want this baby.” When he protests feebly, she mounts the trampoline beside her bed “and bounded into the air. Her back was arched, arms swept out in a swan dive. She was coming right at him. He watched her, staying still. . . . Eventually, she would crush him.”
These first two stories portray men in relationships where they are controlled or manipulated by women. Variants of this dynamic recur in several other stories. In “Widowers,” Alan Fujitani is a forty-something widower who has lost confidence in himself in any lasting relationship since his wife’s death twenty years ago. He becomes acquainted with a strong-minded twenty-three-year-old widow, Emily. One evening, she urges him to go for a swim. In the ocean, Alan asks Emily to lie on her back so that he can buoy her shoulders. As she complies, “he could feel his doubts pass . . . he held her above the swells . . . as if nothing could ever disrupt their tender and elegant suspension.” Yet as the reader knows, the man’s feeling of confidence and strength is founded on delusion—for a woman floating on her back floats by herself. Alan is only being allowed by Emily to feel he...
(The entire section is 1996 words.)