Sandi Tan’s Magical Americana

Sandi Tan’s Magical Americana

Her new novel, Lurkers, captures the defiant and surreal exuberance that has defined her work across fiction and film.

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The world is made up of movers and shakers, on the one hand, the filmmaker and writer Sandi Tan once observed, and on the other, shirkers: those on the fringes of adult life who shrink from conventional responsibility and instead commit themselves to their dreams. This pleasure in shrinking from life is what framed Tan’s Netflix documentary Shirkers (2018), which tells the story of the teenage Tan’s foiled attempt in the early 1990s to make a film (also called Shirkers) with her friends one summer in Singapore. The documentary features the adult Tan looking back on her experiences. It captures the joyous rush of a fearless adolescence in which making art was the ultimate, glorious form of escape.

The same exuberant defiance shapes Tan’s new novel, Lurkers, which follows a group of misfits living in a fictional suburb north of Los Angeles during the 2000s. Korean American teenage sisters Rosemary and Miracle (Mira) Park live with their parents in a worn-down bungalow on Santa Claus Lane, a road lined by deodar pines in Alta Vista. Adjoining their home, which they soon discover is the site of a termite infestation, is a grand two-story vintage Craftsman house, where the jaded former novelist and shut-in Raymond van der Holt lives. Across the street is a mother-daughter duo, Mary-Sue and Kate Ireland, adults who quietly drift through life without much ambition.

As different as all these neighbors are, they have all been brought to Santa Claus Lane by the twinned desire for refuge and escape. The Parks moved there from LA’s Koreatown after the 1992 riots. Raymond, who found success as a bright young Midwestern-transplant author of Lovecraftian horror novels, years ago, soon tired of the literary life and decamped from New York to Alta Vista, an area he prized for being “yet undiscovered by the media throng.” Mary-Sue Ireland had first moved to San Francisco from Iowa. She’d then bought a home in Alta Vista because she thought Kate, who was adopted from Vietnam during the war, needed “to assimilate into the real America.” She had come to realize that “San Francisco, that artificial oasis of tolerance, permissiveness and multiculturalism, was too much of a bubble for that.”

Alta Vista may be a nondescript suburb in the middle of nowhere, a place where adults quietly live out their days and teenagers sulk around in the shadows: but that does not mean it is devoid of excitement. Sometimes living on the fringes can be more delightful than being in the moiling middle. In Shirkers, as Tan talks about her upbringing in Singapore, you sense that it was the very distance between her and centers of culture—she read American Film and Film Comment “religiously,” though it was nearly “impossible to see” any of the movies—that allowed her imagination to balloon as she sought to chart her own path. Likewise, the teenagers in Lurkers stomp around Alta Vista making collages and fake bedroom shrines with a breezy confidence. And the adults begin to find renewed meaning in their lives. (Tan has described the novel as a “coming-of-age novel about people finding their groove at different ages.”) In contrast to the idea of art itself, which aims to offer us a significant meaning, Tan’s project is concerned with the step before that: the human impulse to dive into the wild, and often perverse, corners of one’s imagination. In Tan’s worlds, full of misfit “has-been” adults and bored teenagers living out their lives in unlovable towns, this mental freedom comes most easily when you are not in a place, or at an age, that freights you with expectations (her next project is a film adaptation of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a novel about a lost college student struggling to find meaning in the world). At stake in this seemingly trivial presentation is the urgent matter of owning one’s destiny. “I had the idea that you found freedom by building worlds inside your own head,” Tan says in Shirkers.

Although Tan came to international attention with Shirkers in 2018, she had been working as a filmmaker and writer for many years. After her initial Shirkers film was sabotaged by her aloof and mysterious mentor named Georges, Tan became what she calls “a terrible 22-year-old film critic” at Singapore’s The Straits Times, where she stayed for two years. Tan then moved to New York to attend film school at Columbia (“I knew I was doing things backwards,” Tan recounts in the 2018 documentary, noting her journey from movie maker, to critic, to film student) and later created the short films Moveable Feast (1996) and Gourmet Baby (2001), which were screened at film festivals internationally. Her first novel, The Black Isle (2012) was a wide-ranging supernatural coming-of-age story about Cassandra, a Shanghai-born woman who can see ghosts. Reflecting on The Black Isle in a recent interview with PopMatters, Tan said many had big expectations for the novel—it was published by a large commercial imprint, and its ambitious story explored both Asian colonialism and gender politics—but it “didn’t land.”

In reviewing Tan’s career, it is necessary to include these false starts: the film she made as a bold 18-year-old, tipped to be a Singaporean equivalent to the American teen dramas Ghost World and Rushmore, that got snatched away from her; the historical epic that could have been a best seller that instead faded into the dark. But the themes that commonly occupy her work remain consistent: the celebration of adolescence as a time of bold, uninhibited experimentation; the desire to shrink from the 9-to-5 world in favor of the land of dreams, and the delights of sui generis self-creation. Besides, as Tan has learned, precocity is overrated. In Lurkers, it is not so much the teenagers Rosemary and Mira who experience the kind of earthshaking joie de vivre that accompanies a coming-of-age, but rather the grumpy Raymond, quiet, retired Mary-Sue, and diffident Kate.

Tan moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2004, near the San Gabriel mountains. She began writing Lurkers as a way to imagine her way into the city’s suburbs, often rendered in the public imagination as dreary passing-over points (Santa Claus Lane is bracketed on both sides by stop signs) and to capture the ambient paranoia of post 9/11 America. Santa Claus Lane, despite its jolly title, contains some dark aggression. Every day, at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the neighborhood “Mystery Boom Box” starts to “blast its infernal melodies,” of mid-2000s Christina Aguilera hits, her melodies bouncing off garages, walls, and patios down the street. Mr. Park asks the neighbors to turn the sound down, and gets laughed away. A string of local housebreakings bring helicopters hovering over the road in the evening. Meanwhile, Rosemary is fixated by the news story of missing 15-year-old Brittany Yamasato. She feels a “surge of abstract pride” to see Yamasato on national television, and “liked the fact that there was rarely any mention of the girl’s ethnicity, except on the Fox News network, where she was continually misdescribed as ‘Japanese teenager Brittany Ann Yamasato.’”

Tan scans America with the eye of someone who is inside the fold enough to speak its language, but can also pick apart a culture from the outside. She also has a filmmaker’s eye for random, yet revealing visual detail; the nation is rendered, by Tan’s piercing and playful prose, suitably ridiculous. As the embittered Mary-Sue returns to Des Moines for her father’s funeral, she peers “into the other cars and surprised herself thinking that, apart from the overeaters and the high-waisted geezers with the Dust Bowl faces, Iowans were, by and large, a good-looking people.” Later, as Mary-Sue retires to Florida, she slowly evolves into a “perfectly plausible Southerner”: “she wore sandals to restaurants whether appropriate or not, stacked unwanted items in the yard and developed a sweet tooth for any kind of nut roasted in brown sugar.” You could call Tan a snob, but she has no patience for East Coast cool either, which is deemed lazy and parochial. Mary-Sue’s WASP college friends “sleepwalked through life” with a “frayed aristocratic style [that] was vastly overprized,” and she tires of meeting New Yorkers who are “prone to talking as if they knew everyplace and everything despite never venturing outside the five boroughs.” Raymond, meanwhile, has left the literary world partly in disgust at the profusion of “catty romans à clef about life in New York’s upper crust written by venal young things in stiletto heels.”

At the heart of any American story lies immigration. The story of Mr. and Mrs. Park, which opens and closes the novel, has less of the roaming curiosity and joy afforded to the other characters. Some of this is attributable to the plot: Mr. Park dies by suicide in the first pages of the novel, leaving Rosemary, Mira, and their mother struggling to survive economically. As the girls conspired to prevent their mother from moving them to Korea, I wished I had been given more glimpses of Mrs. Park’s interiority. Meanwhile, Kate Ireland, an “Operation Babylift” child, acclimates herself to America quickly and remains in Alta Vista as an adult, a fact that somewhat perturbs her mother. Despite the trove of literature exploring the ambivalence of young people caught between two worlds, the immigrant children of Lurkers are wholeheartedly unsentimental and do not feel any of the requisite regard for their unassimilated parents. Rosemary and Mira find their parents slightly pathetic, laughing at their broken English. For them, Korea is not a longed-for homeland but rather a death sentence that needs to be avoided at all costs. Adolescent cruelty and carelessness are qualities rarely given to immigrant children in the public imagination. Lurkers expands the parameters of what the immigrant child can be—awkward, imperfect, yet perfectly unperturbed by their place in America.

The Park daughters may try to sever their ties with their parents—but another, far more indelible presence circulates in their lives. At the heart of 2018’s Shirkers was Georges Cardona, a mysterious man of impenetrable origin and age who taught a filmmaking course that Tan attended as a teenager. Cardona, who would help Tan direct the original Shirkers, had “icy-blue eyes” that made you feel like you were the only person in the world, and would spend many nights in Singapore cruising with Tan and her friends in his car. He comported himself like a visionary, spinning tales of working with cinema’s greats—though Tan realized years later that most of his ideas were copied from other films. After filming wrapped up, Cardona ignored Tan’s multiple requests to see footage of the film and the tapes were lost for years. (In the 2018 Shirkers, Tan would speak with some of Georges’s former friends, who shared their own stories of his mysteriously sabotaging their art. Cardona passed away from cardiac failure in 2007, his unnamed wife tells us in the documentary, while with his 21-year-old girlfriend.)

In Lurkers, Rosemary becomes drawn in by theater teacher Mr. Zehring (the students call him “Mr. Z.”), “a boyish man who could have been twenty-six—or forty.” Mr. Z. teeters between the acceptable—he appears to live in a gorgeous cottage in the suburb with a beautiful wife; Rosemary thinks he looks like a “handsome JFK”—and the entirely inappropriate: He puts the East Asian students in a supplementary theater class to help “unlock” their apparently inscrutable faces, screens arthouse films with “nude scenes too bizarre for the kids to find sexy” and puts Rosemary and her classmate Arik into a special two-person “workshop” for a play, where they do trust exercises that involve kissing. Mr. Z.’s art is bad, and forever delayed: You get the sense that, like Georges’s mysterious hold over Sandi in Shirkers, it is this never-quite-arriving that is the point. Having poured all his efforts into mythologizing himself as a great underrated artist, Mr. Z. shrinks when it is time to perform. Better to spin out the delusion than confront the unbearable reality of not being not good enough.

A crude, though not entirely inaccurate, simplification would posit that the men in Lurkers are cold neurotics desperately avoiding self-understanding by escaping into emotional affairs with teenagers; the women, meanwhile, carry a lot of anger, hunger, and life. It is not Mr. Z.’s play, nor Mr Park’s stories, that stuck with me as the most artful aspect of Lurkers, but rather Mira Park’s nightmarish shrine, of sorts, composed of the religious icons she collects and keeps in a shoebox under her bed: “a rubber Buddha, a wind-up Moses with a bowlegged stride, a family of genderless Peruvian worry dolls, a garish clay Hindu Ganesha, Rosemary’s Jesus nightlight, the milk-chocolate dreidel her classmate Ruth gave her back in third grade, and a series of laminated prayer cards featuring Catholic saints in action poses, sometimes leaking blood.” Mrs Park comes in one night to discover all the icons “glued together to form one monster amalgam, the chemical sealant still pungent.” Over this “pantheistic mess” hangs a five-by-seven framed portrait of the late Mr. Park, on which Mira has written a prayer in “wobbly cursive” to the “Pure and the Soaked.”

The mega-statue is dark, disquieting, and entirely grotesque. It is the sort of thing imagined from a delirious fever-dream, driven by the sheer desire to create. It is made by someone who has no expectations or aspirations to produce capital-a Art, does not know or care what it means to jostle within a competitive world or participate in a scene, or to whom or to what they need to pay heed to advance in it. And for that, both Mira Park, and Lurkers, cements its place in the brilliant and bizarre space of Tan’s imaginative playgrounds.

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