Publisher: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Bonus content: Q&A with author Leland Cheuk
The title of Cheuk’s new book, and many chapters within, contain the word “misadventures,” but I’m confident I could run a “find and replace all” of that word with the phrase “fuck ups” and no one would be the wiser. The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a Chinese American’s tale of trying and failing to remove himself from the fate of becoming another man in his family with nothing but a life full of “misadventures.”
Sulliver narrates the bulk of his story from a prison cell in Bordirtown, a desolate Anytown, USA that reeks of cow patties and chemical pollutants, and was christened its phonetic name by an illiterate great grand uncle. Serving 18 months on a 4 year sentence, Sulliver documents his story in a manuscript that he hopes will lead to his release. In his cell with rats and uncouth cellmates, he defends his innocence by recounting not only his own “misadventures” but those of all his male predecessors made up of every variety of loser, criminal, and sociopath from murderers, pimps, drug dealers, wife beaters, and politicians. Among them, the occasional ordinary citizen like a pastor or hard working husband, but these are rare, as if being a normal functioning human being is a genetic mutation or a gene that skipped not one, but every two generations.
What Sulliver wants us to believe (or perhaps he’s trying to keep himself convinced) is that he tried his hardest not to become another link on a dysfunctional family chain—he left as soon as he could, moved to Copenhagen, and married outside the Bordirtown community. However, a few years back, he was beckoned home to care for his mother, and with nothing better to do than mooch off the “sweet, sweet Danish” unemployment, he returned to Bordirtown only to find himself snarled in a toxic suckhole of family drama. He carpet-bagging-ly ran for town mayor against his father out of pure spite, a hilarious satire on politics since father and son Pong are not only least qualified and terrible at managing their own lives, but both believed that battling each other for public office would miraculously result in a positive outcome for everyone, including the townspeople and spouses caught in the middle.
From the beginning, Cheuk brilliantly illustrates unyielding familial and marital tensions. Sulliver is not only torn between his wife and his duties as a son, but also the life he started in Copenhagen and the mess he left behind in his childhood home. Subtle bitterness bubbles from every interaction and confrontation, and the dialogue is laden with passive-aggressive undertones, and the novel itself ceaselessly maintains the tension and conflict (simply because these people are so hopeless). From an outside perspective, the answers to the Pong family problems are obvious: someone needs to do more than just move to another country to break the cycle of dysfunction. Someone’s gotta kill someone, breed outside the bloodlines, get divorced, or find a life coach, but naturally, these people aren’t going to miraculously get their shit together, save themselves, and then go on to save the world. Quoting Sulliver’s public defender, “you come from generations of idiots and jerks,” and there’s no way the Pongs are going to change overnight without drastic intervention, and this is precisely what maintains the novel’s unbreakable connection to the major dramatic question. This powerful literary tool becomes a perfect Petri dish for the multiplying family dramas.
Cheuk also leverages the human power of denial, especially when it comes to Sulliver who staunchly believes that he’s always chosen the higher path and has done everything to prevent himself from becoming another “degenerate” (his word, not mine). The evident disconnect between his observations and reality is uncanny and the only thing he manages to perfect is the art of whining about how his life never works out because a series of unfortunate events. In reality, he rarely makes any selfless or good decisions unless forced into a corner, and although he may believe that his life’s just been a tidal wave of bad luck, he drains his wife’s inheritance money to fund his campaign for mayor and he has his cell mate killed because of a few annoying habits. This is not bad luck; this is being a total asshole.
However, this schmuck can’t be totally blamed for the way he turned out, after all, he grew up watching his father and mother act like that raging high school couple we all know, the king and queen of drama who just needed to break up to save everyone the headache. Classically codependent, this husband and wife are a train wreck that derailed into a minefield, and both refuse to divorce each other. His father refuses because he doesn’t want it to tarnish his political image and his mother refuses because she doesn’t want to have to “find a job.” As individuals, they’re self-serving and abrasively obnoxious. The mother character has a bottomless barrel of harping in her reserves with a keen ability to hurl insults at the drop of a hat. The father, Saul, is definitely a piece of work and seemingly worse than all Pongs that preceded him, even his illiterate brothel-owning prostitute-murdering uncle. There’s the small stuff like making his secretary ask his own son to answer a series of security questions before wiring him through, but add in his hobbies of fathering families all over the globe like an international man of polygamist mystery, brothel-owning, wife-beating, and scheming, and he makes for one fantastical character. His own father once referred to him as a demon child, who at age five, “was bilking neighborhood girls out of their money by selling piss and water as lemonade.”
Occasionally, the narration is disorienting—it’s one thing to narrate the past from the present, but Sulliver bounces to and from stories of past Pongs, from great-great-uncles to great grand fathers. He also rambles to himself in a “but what? What was I planning to do?” sense and injects random details that don’t add much value. And the quantity of Pongs in this story who were made out to be low-class, violent, racist, and dishonest clowns all tied up in antisocial behaviors be it drugs, pimping, scamming, philandering, and/or wife beating is uncanny. After reading through countless generations of the Pongs’ “misadventures,” it is difficult to like anyone, even in a “like to hate” sense. At times, the never-ending stream of fuck ups was miserable to endure, and read like a bad cocaine crash while walking uphill in a torrential downpour of acid rain.
There are a few uplifting moments such as father saying to son (Saul saying to Sulliver), “Learn only the good things from me, not my bad,” and quieter passages where beautifully sad details twinkle through the grit like a silver dollar in gutter muck. In a flashback of Sulliver’s great granduncle, Pariss, an illiterate brothel owner who beats and murders the prostitutes, we learn that he grew up watching his mother sell herself and take beatings from her clients, and how, as an adult, he only felt a connection with someone when his fist connected with their flesh. Moments like these remind us that the men in this family are still human, and perhaps better influences and upbringings might have spared them a lifetime of “misadventures.” These redeeming moments are rare though, and most of the time, everyone is acting like a total jackass and dragging down the innocent.
All in all, Leland Cheuk’s new novel is a fast-paced and detail-laden read about a family still struggling to make a positive impact on the world. Painfully dark but darkly humorous, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a dysfunctional tale about one man’s fight to conquer his personal demons and pursue his own version of the American Dream.
Q&A with Leland Cheuk
Lavinia: You dove into the history of the Pong family bloodline, back into the 1800s. What research did you do to make the scenes and predicaments historically accurate?
Leland: I didn’t go much further than Google. At first, the book was just Sulliver’s story, but my agent at the time asked me to add the stories of the ancestors, and he made it sound like he was ordering extra onions with his burger. No big deal, right? In the end, I was really happy he did, because it added depth to the book and it was a challenge to write what was essentially comedic historical fiction. There were characters that I personally loved, specifically slow, but good-hearted Millmore and Robinson the frustrated artist. Because Sulliver’s story was already written and the characters were all going to have a sliver of Sulliver and his father in them, my research was basically fill-in-the-blank. What did the characters wear back then? What did they do for work? What were the family units like? All that stuff is readily available online if you look for it.
Lavinia: Which character do you identify most with, and why?
Leland: It would have to be Sulliver. I started this book in the mid-oughts, so I was in my late-twenties, and my parents had just had this huge blow-up. My mom caught my dad with another woman–Cheaters-style. She trailed him with a car and everything. She was calling me all the time, emotionally wrecked, giving me the play-by-play like I was her best girlfriend. Eventually, I got my mom a divorce lawyer in San Francisco, and I was sitting there between them in the lawyer’s office. I was divorcing my parents. It was terrible for everyone involved. But my mom never pulled the trigger. She chose unhappiness in exchange for stability. The thing I’ve never understood: why was she so wrecked then? I remember my parents fighting about my father’s philandering way back when I was in grade-school.
Anyway, the whole experience led me to question whether I was infected with the worst traits of my parents, despite consciously making choices that were the polar opposites of all of the choices my parents made.
Lavinia: Sulliver ditched his home of Bordirtown for Copenhagen. Why this city and not another? Is there a significance or symbolism?
Leland: I studied abroad for six months in Copenhagen in 1997. I was at undergraduate business school at UC Berkeley (thanks to my caving to parental pressure) and hated it. I was going through a lot of angst and needed a break. It was the first time I was away from the Bay Area for an extended period of time. My parents couldn’t even call me easily. Copenhagen was where I came of age. I learned some Danish, visited Christiania on a daily basis, met people from all over the world who were different from me (certainly different from the type of people who go to business school at UC Berkeley), and I traveled all over Europe. I got into Danish film (that was the heyday of Dogme 95). There’s a terrific film entitled Inheritance, directed by Per Fly, starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the broad plot strokes are essentially Sulliver’s story. A prodigal son and successful restaurateur is happily married in Stockholm, but when his father commits suicide, he’s ordered back home to Denmark by his mother to be CEO of his family’s struggling steel corporation. Once he returns home, his morals and his marriage slowly disintegrate, and by the end, he’s a drunk, alone in a giant French villa, contemplating whether to rape the housekeeper. I mean, yeah, it goes super-dark.
And of course, Denmark is the setting of the ultimate dysfunctional family drama: Hamlet.
Lavinia: Any real place an inspiration for Bordirtown, the city that reeks of cow patties and chemicals?
Leland: El Paso. I visited a high school friend who was a medical resident there in the mid-oughts. It is indeed a scary border town. For whatever reason, Mexico looks extra scary from El Paso. There were always dark clouds over Juarez and black hills. For a kid who grew up in the pristine Bay Area, El Paso resembled Mars. My brother, who made my awesome book trailer, actually went to El Paso and got footage for me. A lot of his shots were actually images in my head when I wrote the book.
Lavinia: What are you working on now?
Leland: I plan to put out another book with CCLaP in 2017. It’s a story collection entitled Letters From Dinosaurs that has a lot of the pieces I’ve published in journals. For the past five years, I’ve also been working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese American standup comedian (think Chinese American Chris Rock). I hope I’ll be ready to shop that this spring.
Leland Cheuk is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is always working on a novel and a collection of stories. His novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Cheuk’s writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer born and raised in the Bay Area, California. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. On March, 1st, 2016, Casperian Books will release her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven, a narrative that sheds light on independent artists of a shipwrecked generation coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Her other small press book reviews have appeared in The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.