Review, Top Stories

The Souls of Yellow Folk—A Review

A review of The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang. W. W. Norton & Company (November 2018), 256 pages.

Wesley Yang’s longform essay “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” was first published in the small magazine n+1 in the early months of 2008. At the time Yang, who was in his early 30s, seemed to be a typical young New York writer. He had published an assortment of short pieces, mostly about books, for places like New York, Salon, and the New York Observer. He wasn’t a “name” yet, but he was well-known enough that one of the editors of n+1 thought of him when they were looking for someone to write about Cho, the Korean-American student who’d killed 32 people and wounded 17 during his shooting rampage on the campus of Virginia Tech.

“I resented the implication of his request,” writes Yang in the introduction to his new collection of essays, The Souls of Yellow Folk. “The implication was that there was something about that episode that would be particularly salient to me. …The implication was that we shared something in common, the Virginia Tech killer and I. … I resented the implication because it was true.”

The piece that Yang dredged up out of this resented truth, which leads off the new book, was extraordinary. Funny, brutally smart, vulgar, and self-lacerating, but also bluntly confident in its judgments. Seung-Hui Cho wasn’t just Wesley Yang, he was millions of lonely young men who felt unloved, unseen, and unvalued in contemporary America, many of whom burn with ressentiment, and some of whom, it was becoming clear, would make the rest of us pay for their desperation. Re-reading the essay now, a decade later, its themes resonate even more powerfully now that we’ve all been overtaken by the sad angry lonely man truths Yang was exploring a decade ago.

“Cho imagines the one thing that can never exist,” writes Yang, “…an army of other losers like himself, denied recognition and rendered invisible, who would someday attain class consciousness and leave behind their abjection through violent, coordinated action to subdue the world to their will, or die fighting.”

The essay goes on like this for about 10,000 words, each page scintillating with insight and intelligence. An abbreviated list of the things about which the essay has exceptionally interesting things to say would include: Korean faces; indie romantic comedies; young homosexuals; Wayne Lo; Seung-hui Cho; “brown-toned South American immigrants that pick your fruit, slaughter your meat, and bus your tables”; the middle class people who would never date them, and the impossibility of acknowledging this fact; the understandable revulsion of pretty white girls toward creepy-seeming Korean boys; bad early ’90s grunge rock; the hypocrisy of poet Nikki Giovanni; Yang’s own damned self; and Yang’s old college acquaintance Samuel Goldfarb, of whom Yang writes: “He was ugly on the outside, and once you got past that you found the true ugliness on the inside.”

There aren’t many essayists alive today who can sustain the level of brilliance Yang maintains in the essay for as long as he does. Zadie Smith can do it. Dave Hickey and Joan Didion could do it once, but are too old now. David Foster Wallace could do it, but although he should be alive, he is not. Ta-Nehisi Coates looked like he was on his way toward being able to do it, but he made other choices. A few other writers, maybe, but not many.

The essay doesn’t just teem with sentence-level excellence. Through all the micro-level fascination Yang has a larger point to make about what it is like to be an unlovable young man in America, a loser in the sexual and cultural marketplace, and the ways in which that loserdom intersects with and reinforces the experience of Asian-American-ness.

He is also enacting, or asserting, some version of what an alternative Asian-American identity might look or sound like, fierce in its refusal to submit to the expectations that anyone would impose on it, rife with ambivalence and ambiguity, embracing of complexity and contradiction.

Back in 2008, the essay seemed to ensure that Yang would be an important American writer. He would get a book deal. The big magazines would give him thousands of words, and dollars, to do his thing, and he would appear on panels in Aspen and Brooklyn. He would be the last thing he could have ever imagined, one of those glowing figures who are the object of resentment and envy of the unloved masses. Such trajectories aren’t usually predictable from one essay in a small magazine, but in this case it was.

But then Yang disappeared. He didn’t literally disappear, of course. The new collection is a record of that fact. With the exception of 2012, there is a piece from every year between then and now, including two essays from late 2017. Most of these pieces were originally published in high profile publications, and one of them won a National Magazine Award.

But Yang the writer on the fast track to literary eminence didn’t materialize. He only alludes to the reasons for this in The Souls of Yellow Folk, and in some work that isn’t collected here (including a recent profile of Jordan Peterson, in which he wrote,“I first came across Jordan Peterson in late 2016. I had been ensnared in a destructive familial ordeal that consumed some of the most important years of my career and put a strain on my marriage. I was unable to complete a manuscript for a book that I had been contracted to write. I had assignments I couldn’t finish. I was, in other words, exactly the sort of person whom Peterson’s message is optimized to reach.”). The relevant fact, though, is that for six or seven years he wasn’t able to dedicate himself to writing and building his career. That The Souls of Yellow Folk is as good as it is, despite this, is testament to how good Yang is.

The book fluctuates in its quality, but only between good and extraordinary. He’s only good on chef Eddie Huang, rebel hacker tragedy Aaron Swartz, sex in New York City, Britney Spears, pick-up artist Neil Strauss, leftist thinker Tony Judt, and bigthink political theorist Francis Fukuyama. He’s extraordinary on Seung-Hui Cho, tiger mom Amy Chua, and—in the book’s last section—identity politics in the age of Trump.

Collectively, the essays paint a fascinating and disturbing picture of pre-dystopian anomie and dissolution. The lonely and angry and oversensitive young men who will, by 2035 or so, have coalesced into roving tribes of bandits and revolutionaries, are—at the moment—only coalescing and pillaging online. They’re self-identifying and tribalizing as masters of seduction rather than masters of destruction. They’re killing themselves, not others, or killing as loners rather than as bands of brownshirts. The identity politics presently disfiguring our multi-racial democracy is, for the moment, mostly a phenomenon of social media, the campuses, and certain sectors of the media. Its influence is largely a reflection of the passion and rhetorical savvy of its adherents rather than their numbers or their actual capacity to persuade people outside of their communities. But the writing’s on the wall.

“Social media has proven to be, among other things, a remarkably efficient means to inject novel ideas,” writes Yang in the book’s final essay, “into a public sphere occupied by members of the media, activist, and intellectual classes, who use it, among other things, to coordinate an ever-advancing consensus about what being antiracist entails. There one can watch in real time as the unfolding of the internal logic of various ideological tendencies emerge, evolve, and reach their terminus. One handy rule of thumb is that any accusation or charge made as a half-ironic provocation in May will be avowed with earnest conviction in December and chanted by activists the following April.”

That the book ends at such a pitch of intellectual intensity is significant. It suggests that for whatever combination of personal, economic, intellectual, and larger cultural reasons, Yang is back. It also suggests that there is hope yet for a humane, liberal, complex alternative to white nationalism and identity politics (or Britney Spears and Neil Strauss). The liberalism that runs so deep in the national psyche may continue to exert a fundamental constraint on the extremism, idiocy, and violence that also, alas, run pretty deep.

In a number of hostile reviews of The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang has been criticized for the presumptuousness of his title. It’s a half- or two-thirds-fair criticism. This is not an analog to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. A good chunk of the pieces in the book don’t even address Asian-Americanness. Those that do are overlapping rather than integrated or coordinated in their arguments. It’s not a wholly fair critique, though. There is an argument, implicit and occasionally explicit in the book, about the role that the souls of yellow folk may end up playing in the fate of the republic. It’s an unfinished argument, for which Yang must bear responsibility. Nevertheless, it’s interesting and challenging and demands consideration, as almost everything Yang writes does.

“In an age characterized by the politics of resentment,” he writes, “the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either. This condition of marginality is both the cause and the effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.”

I don’t know if that’s true, globally. What is clear, however, is that Yang’s refreshing perspective feels important. He is one of the essential writers we have right now and we are lucky to have him.

 

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (Simon & Schuster), which was named a notable nonfiction book of 2016 by the Washington Post. He’s now working on a book about the writer Dave Hickey. He tweets (very occasionally) @dan_oppenheimer

22 Comments

  1. Circuses and Bread says

    Hmmm. This book/essay sounds like a lot of first world angst. I somehow doubt that the folks in Venezuela or Myanmar are all that consumed with “ressentiment.” Not eating enough calories over time will do that to you.

    As for Mr. Yang, I suggest that he get married if he isn’t already and have a lot of children. Noisy kids demanding your attention and having to pay the bills every month have a remarkably therapeutic effect on any sense of victimhood.

    • Morgan says

      There is an interesting observation by historians (I am afraid I don’t recall the source, apologies) that the lack of essentials or even riches only leads to resentment among those had essentials or riches once. In other words, it is the change of state rather than the state itself that makes people resent.

      • Just Me says

        Or the unfulfilled promise of a better life can do that.

        Political reforms that promise a better life, but don’t deliver, then lead to revolutions.

        So what happens when the promise of the American Dream doesn’t pan out…?

    • Alan D White says

      Yes indeed. Raising a family does a lot to cure excessive self-introspection

  2. Daniel J Oppenheimer says

    What an odd thing to write at a time when angry populism is on the rise around the world, including, as it happens, in Venezuela and Myanmar. Pankaj Mishra just wrote a whole book on ressentiment around the world. I’m happy to cop to the charge of first world angst, in general, but boy is it off base in this instance.

    • Innominata says

      WAITAMINUTE! Hold up! Cease fire!

      I don’t think this is the usual angst fair. I am as fed up with universal victimhood as the next guy; but this feels different. We’ve got a real thinker here, I do believe. Whether or not I agree with all his presumptions, I’m going to be looking into this fellow’s work. I just reserved my copy at the library, and I’m going to read his essay linked above.

      @Daniel Oppenheimer, thanks for writing this up. I’d have missed this otherwise. Well done. Nicely expressed on your part.

  3. ROBERT MITCHELL says

    Didn’t capture my interest. My mind kept saying,”God, another victim minority report”.

    • Then you’re not familiar with Wesley Yang’s writing whatsoever, as your impression could not be further from the truth.

    • Swing. And a miss.

      You have to read more than the title to be able to judge something.

  4. Farris says

    “Collectively, the essays paint a fascinating and disturbing picture of pre-dystopian anomie and dissolution. The lonely and angry and oversensitive young men who will, by 2035 or so, have coalesced into roving tribes of bandits and revolutionaries, are—at the moment—only coalescing and pillaging online. They’re self-identifying and tribalizing as masters of seduction rather than masters of destruction. They’re killing themselves, not others, or killing as loners rather than as bands of brownshirts. The identity politics presently disfiguring our multi-racial democracy is, for the moment, mostly a phenomenon of social media, the campuses, and certain sectors of the media. Its influence is largely a reflection of the passion and rhetorical savvy of its adherents rather than their numbers or their actual capacity to persuade people outside of their communities. But the writing’s on the wall.”

    The antifa crowd is a bunch of resentful losers. Who knew?

  5. Andrew Mcguiness says

    This looks interesting, I think I’ll get a copy. One thing, though:

    “In a number of hostile reviews of The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang has been criticized for the presumptuousness of his title. … A good chunk of the pieces in the book don’t even address Asian-Americanness.” – Maybe that’s the point? That the souls of yellow folk aren’t completely consumed with their “identity” as ‘yellow folk’?

  6. ga gamba says

    … Cho, the Korean-American student who’d killed 32 people and wounded 17 during his shooting rampage on the campus of Virginia Tech.

    This is incorrect. Cho was not an American-citizen, hence he was not a Korean-American. He was a South Korean citizen with permanent residency in the US. You ought to correct that.

  7. Dr. Puppypants says

    What in blazes are you thinking? The excerpts from Yang which you quote are utterly terrible writing — dry, clunky, without a lick of soul or wit or sound-sense. His tepid observations are “true”, if at all, in a timid, limited, platitude-and-longitude sort of way. You can’t be serious.

    Consider the cliched limits of his supposed insights. He rattles on in the most expectable manner about the “brown-toned immigrants who bus your tables, cook your food, wake me when he’s finished.”

    He might as easily have spoken of “the brown-toned immigrants who flood your jails, bankrupt your hospitals, ruin your schools, wreck your neighborhoods, make your house unaffordable, dilute your culture, now I’d be listening.”

    He neglects to note that the poor li’l pobrecitos are not primarily paid in cash or EBT; they are paid in being permitted to take up space, uninvited and unwanted and un-called for, in an advanced, safe, clean, orderly, healthy, stable, technologically unprecedented society which their tiny little brown-toned minds will never be capable of producing on their own. They’d rather work in Helot’s Kitchen ( see what I did there? Somebody get me n/1 on the line) and sponge off our advances, than try building their own countries into something nicer than an orange crate.

    Considering the true elements of the bargain, their already meager wages should be further docked.

    If Yang is the best that latter-day American essayists have to offer, I’ll head down to the corner bus stop and find a homeless schizophrenic to enlighten me.

    • Andrew Mcguiness says

      ” … which their tiny little brown-toned minds will never be capable of producing on their own” is racist. And “They’d rather work in Helot’s Kitchen … than try building their own countries into something nicer than an orange crate” is untrue – there are reasons why the US is a ‘advanced, safe, clean, orderly, healthy, stable, technologically unprecedented society’ and some other countries are not, which have nothing to do with the will of the inhabitants.

      • Professor Puppypants says

        1. Andrew M: “(proposition x, y and z) is racist.”
        You have a peculiar way of misspelling the word “true.”

        2. “there are reasons why… some other countries are not.”
        There certainly are such reasons; see 1) above.

  8. Interesting read, though David, justifiably, seems a bit queer for Wesley.

    Any writer that can throw out a line like “…expose Peterson as a word-salad-generating pseudomystical obscurantist who “believes in witches” (From Yang’s Tablet piece: The Shocking Truth About Jordan Peterson.), is going to be loved dearly by another writer such as David, who says; “… fierce in its refusal to submit to the expectations that anyone would impose on it, rife with ambivalence and ambiguity, embracing of complexity and contradiction.”

    Good on yer both!

  9. codadmin says

    The problem Asians have as a minority group in leftist dominated America is that they aren’t African Americans.

    Only an Asian American could understand, and dare to write about, the embattled status of white Americans.

  10. Zany Grey says

    Are you sure he didn’t mean to call it “The Souls of Fellow Yolks”?

  11. Grant says

    Does Yang discuss the fairly severe mental illnesses Cho was diagnosed with in middle school? Of course people who suffer these illnesses are sometimes affected much more greatly by social isolation than a normal person, and that was likely the case with Cho. He doesn’t seem much different than any other young mass shooter, whatever their race.

  12. Pizza Pete says

    I would like to make a plea against knee-jerk reactions to Yang and writing him off as a whiny identity politics avatar. I enjoy his prose which is at turns bitter, funny, lucid, and morally urgent. Take the following:

    “Political correctness doesn’t just threaten us with a democratic crisis and collapse by feeding a cycle of political reaction. It is not just bad for what it summons up in opposition to itself. It is bad for what it does, which is to threaten the core values of those for whom truth seeking is the lifeblood of their calling. In place of such activities, it actively empowers a cohort of bureaucratic mediocrities and opportunists who launder their personal pathology and power seeking as the height of political and social virtue. No one is as endangered by political correctness as the comedian, the artist, the scientist, and the philosopher—all those to whom we turn for correction. These are the figures who have silently permitted the opportunistic mediocrities in their midst to enforce a false consensus that no thinker or writer or performer of any integrity endorses. So long as we allow ourselves to be ruled by a toxic power-seeking minority in this undemocratic fashion, our subjugation is a choice.”

    This is well done, no? It’s easy to point to the drabness and officiousness of this bureaucratic ideology and its enforcers, respectively, less so to bring out what is truly at stake without getting overheated, less so to underscore our complicity.

    Regarding explorations in identity, I generally enjoy Kevin Williamson’s musings on his downwardly mobile West Texas upbringing. So with Yang. He’s in that select group of being so talented that he deserves some leeway.

    • Professor Puppypants says

      Your plea is hereby denied.

      This Yang guy isn’t even a thinker at all; from what I’ve seen quoted here, he doesn’t care to genuinely investigate or consider anything. He must hold the Tiny Shapiro Chair in Received Assumptions and Begging the Question at the New Skool for Social Research.

      Consider this fur-ball of a ‘thought’ (as you quote above):

      “Political correctness… feeding a cycle of political reaction.” He is confusing “reaction”, which comes with an automatic pre-fab tar-brush, with “reply,” “alternative,” “riposte,” “outgrowth” or “response” — all of which can and should be considered as what the opposition to political Leftist authoritarianism might really turn out to be. He isn’t thinking, he’s checking boxes. He assumes the opposition is bad. Many of us do not share his juvenile assumption.

      Same goes for this little Cap’n Crunch nugget of an aperçu: “No one is as endangered by PC as the comedian, the artist, the scientist…”

      Whoa there, Socrates, I can think of zillions of people who are vastly more endangered by PC (or POC, for that matter) than your little pets. Victims of PC include things like victims of industrial-scale murder and rape, to say nothing of the wholesale burning to the ground of an entire formerly functioning civilization.

      Well, at least the Chinese must be pleased: in another generation or two, the West will be so decayed, they’ll be able to take it over without firing a shot. Hmmm, maybe this crafty Yang fella is actually hedging his bets….

  13. Pizza Pete says

    “Victims of PC include things like victims of industrial-scale murder and rape, to say nothing of the wholesale burning to the ground of an entire formerly functioning civilization.”

    This is very alarmist. Should we be running around like our hair’s on fire? Is our hair on fire?

    I appreciate the enthusiasms of the Weimar Republic reenactors, another oddly compelling crack in the reality of 2018. But it all just seems a bit contrived. And if all of this serious, which I think it is, shouldn’t we be acting… seriously.

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