Monkey Kings and Mojo: Postmodern Ethnic Humor in Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor

By Lowe, John | MELUS, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Monkey Kings and Mojo: Postmodern Ethnic Humor in Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor


Lowe, John, MELUS


The postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations -- not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable. The post-modern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by preestablished rules and cannot be judged according to a determinant judgment, by the application of given categories to this text or work. Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating. The artist and the writer there re work without rules and in order to establish the rules for what will have been made.

The same story can be comedy or tragedy, depending on the music.

The search for a postmodern aesthetic has led us into many profitable directions, helping us chart what we might call a "new literary order." Curiously, however, most theorists of this endeavor have ignored some dazzling talents operating in the mode, namely America's brilliant ethnic writers. Not coincidentally, many of these artists have chosen to couch their serious messages in comic forms; this is one of several factors that might have led critics to ignore them. I would like to explore three important postmodern ethnic comedies here, in order to suggest, I hope provocatively, that attentively reading ethnic writers' comic creations might help us to correct some errors in current definitions of postmodernism. I am elsewhere providing close comparative readings of Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing (1986), Gerald Vizenor's Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987), and Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989). Because of limits of space, I will here briefly contrast the nature, goals, and methods of these three comic novels and then concentrate on the types of humor used in the texts, drawing lines of connection between three writers who, not coincidentally, are colleagues at Berkeley. The books listed above came out within the span of three years, and Kingston's, the last in the series, is, I believe, indebted to the achievements of her colleagues, especially Vizenor. At least part of the comic energy of the book stems from Kingston's exhilaration at breaking free from first person narration and monologic narrative patterning, which she had nevertheless used to powerful effect in her earlier books.

Noting links between Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor is not to subtract one iota from the brilliant originality of Tripmaster, surely an undervalued book, or to suggest that the other writers have not in their own turn pillaged the past, the works of other artists, or, indeed, their own earlier work, for this is the very nature of the postmodern project. Kingston's richly textured and uproarious novel succeeds best in its postmodern goals and, in so doing, illustrates what will emerge here as my challenge to Jameson, Lyotard, and other postmodern critics, who have failed to note developments beyond the narrow parameters of their theory in the very texts that one would presume should generate such an apparatus in the first place. I would further suggest that if postmodern theorists had developed their definitions and paradigms with ethnic writers and texts in mind, we would have a more accurate and useful sense of both the way postmodernist writing functions in general and the social functions this new form of writing continues to serve, especially within the ethnic communities of this nation.

What makes Kingston's work stand out among postmodern ethnic writers? It may be that comparatively more virtuosity was called for in Tripmaster Monkey, in that it projects her into the voice and actions of an often offensive, but nevertheless engaging, would-be macho Chinese-American, who has the charm and guile, but also the nastiness, of the proverbial trickster monkey. …

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