Renowned Asian-American author Kingston (The Fifth Book of Peace, 2003, etc.) reflects on her life, as well as the lives of her most popular fictional characters, in this 240-page elegy.
The author began this book weeks before her 65th birthday, inspired by the notion of simultaneously gaining and losing time. Having named the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey (1989) Wittman Ah Sing, in honor of Walt Whitman, she again tips her hat to the American poet by styling this memoir as verse. (The title is a line from Thoreau’s Walden that hangs above her desk.) As with her previous books, Kingston explores cultural and familial identity, albeit in a highly unconventional way. Weaving together seemingly disparate subjects, from the death toll of the Iraq War to details about her marriage, she repeatedly articulates an urgent need to translate her deceased father’s writings from Chinese to English. “How to leave you who love me?” she asks, before answering her own question with the directive to, “Do so in story. For the writer, / doing something in fiction is the same as doing / it in life.” This opens up to her unearthing of the protagonists of The Woman Warrior (1976) and Tripmaster Monkey, and she offers updates on what has become of them. The meandering, meditative nature of the narrative is reminiscent of a journal filled with nonsequiturs and sketches, but it lacks a compelling structure. She spirals away from coherent thoughts and memories with lines like, “Soul through and through rocks, / mountains, ranges and ranges of mountains.” There are moments of real honesty and interest, as when she lists the three surprising reasons she continues to live (e.g., “Kill myself, and I set a bad example / to children and everyone who knows me.”), but these glimmers are outnumbered by scattered snippets that lack cohesion.
Kingston is clearly tuned in to a different frequency, and the rhythm of her writing complements her tone, but it’s also erratic and lacks narrative traction.