Wittman Ah Sing, appropriately named after Walt Whitman, is a postmodern poet in his own right. Freshly graduated from Berkley and a recently published book of poetry under his belt, Whitman feels he is the equal of the Beat giants. With his Western cultural influences and Berkley education, Whitman feels as distant as can be from his Chinese heritage. He goes to great lengths to avoid recently immigrated Chinese because they embarrass him, and he vehemently scorns Chinese superstitions.
Little by little, though, Wittman is being drawn back to his roots. Wittman knows exactly how crudely the movies and authors he loves treated their contemporary Chinese actors and writers. Wittman is torn, but has no mechanism for coming to terms with the duality of his identity. His eyes start to open wider though, and he notices for the first time that even though all their drivers’ licenses say Chinese Americans have black hair, the Chinese Americans he knows all have varying natural hair colors without words to describe them.
Wittman attends a party at which the catalyst for his transformation occurs. A beautiful blond woman is reciting cheesy and heroic poetry from the top of a staircase as men cluster around. Wittman realizes that these are the poems that move people, not the heady and overly intellectualized poems people pretend to like. In the garden with a friend, Wittman constructs the brief outline of a play. In the morning, the winners of the party (the people who are still awake and functioning) are treated to breakfast and a performance.
Wittman walks Tana, the poetry-reciter, home from the party. On their way through a park, a priest marries them to keep Wittman from being drafted. Truly a postmodern marriage, Wittman and Tana are left to get to know each other and set up house.
Wittman, unable to get or hold a job, applies for unemployment and is made to watch a video about interviewing techniques. Wittman is shown a large family accompanying an applicant and instructed to leave his friends and people behind. Suddenly, Wittman realizes how alone we are all supposed to be to succeed and imagines a more community-centered life.
This revelation leads Wittman to a neighborhood Chinese community center. Wittman convinces the man who runs the place to let him stage his play for three nights. The play is rehearsed and morphs into an avant-garde freeform blend of American and Chinese mythologies, complete with epic (and destructive) battle scenes. In creating this work of art, Wittman comes to terms with his whole self. On the final night of the play, Wittman delivers a speech about the Chinese character for “I,” which apparently derives from “warrior.” Metaphorically speaking, this is Wittman claiming his “I.”
The language in this novel is dense and chock-full of literary allusions. The reader is rewarded for making an effort with all kinds of interesting gems. For example, Wittman sometimes wears a pair of secondhand glasses even though his vision is perfect, because that way the world looks like a metaphor. Despite the difficulty of the read, this is an unforgettable novel. It postmodernism at its best: strange, decentralized, and referential; but always human, too.