An Excerpt from THE COLLECTIVE, By Don Lee

This weekend, we have an excerpt from Don Lee’s exceptional new novel, The Collective, which is not to be missed. From the publisher (Norton): In 1988, Eric Cho, an aspiring writer, arrives at Macalester College. On his first day he meets a beautiful fledgling painter, Jessica Tsai, and another would-be novelist, the larger-than-life Joshua Yoon. Brilliant, bawdy, generous, and manipulative, Joshua alters the course of their lives, rallying them together when they face an adolescent act of racism. As adults in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three friends reunite as the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective—together negotiating the demands of art, love, commerce, and idealism until another racially tinged controversy hits the headlines, this time with far greater consequences. Long after the 3AC has disbanded, Eric reflects on these events as he tries to make sense of Joshua’s recent suicide. Buy the book here. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor

♦◊♦

The following afternoon, I sat with Joshua in the library, trying to finish the rest of The Quiet American. His eye was puffed and bruised black, the lid half closed.

That guy really called you a chink?” I asked.

You think I’d lie about something like that?”

In my entire life, I had never been on the receiving end of such a slur. I could not deny that there were ethnic tensions in Southern California, but I’d never been affected by anything directly. In this respect, there was comfort in numbers: there were so many Asian Americans in the L.A. area, I could throw a stick in any direction and hit six of them. “I’m just surprised, that’s all,” I said to Joshua. “Everyone’s been so friendly here. I thought maybe people might look at me funny once in a while, but it’s never happened. Not that I’ve noticed, anyway.”

Don’t buy the whole ‘Minnesota nice’ thing,” he said. “This place is as racist as anywhere else. It’s because of all the Hmong refugees. They think we’re boat people, man. It’s as bad as Boston. Over there, you’ve got the ofays in Southie, the yokels in Dorchester—you know exactly what to expect from them—but the more sinister, corrosive, subtle shit comes from people like your chickadee, what’s her name, Didi.”

What about her?”

Were you purposely looking for WASP City?”

She’s Catholic.”

You know what I mean. She’s so white-bread. She’s, like, the apotheosis of white-bread. She’s sourdough, man. She has no soul. She’s never suffered or wanted for anything a day in her life.”

I like her.”

Do you, or you just on bush patrol? The story about the bell get to you?”

Of course not.”

Yeah, right. Listen, she’s a lemon sucker.”

What?”

A yellow dipper, a paddy melt, a Chiquita muncher. California slang for white chicks who want a taste of Asian.”

How come I’m from California and I’ve never heard of any of these terms?”

I can’t account for your ignorance,” Joshua said. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Sourdough is just slumming, man. It’s a phase, like every chick in college needing to go girl-on-girl at some point. Chicks like Sourdough like to think they’re pluralistic, but when it gets down to it, they’ll stick to their own kind.”

Meaning what?”

Meaning Sourdough would never get serious about you.”

Jesus,” I said, “we’re just hanging out. Who said anything about getting serious?”

Just so you understand. Have fun, wet your wick, but don’t expect it could ever go beyond that.”

I didn’t believe Joshua, not really, but I kept thinking about what he had told me, and, against my better judgment, I started scrutinizing everything Didi said and did, as if searching for incriminating evidence. Was it significant, for example, that she bought a silk happi coat (Exhibit A) and began wearing it around campus? Was there something to her having a late-night craving for moo shu pork (Exhibit B) and making us take the bus up Snelling to the House of Dynasty on University Avenue? Should I have been perturbed that she once sang the chorus to the song “Turning Japanese” (Exhibit C) apropos of nothing? What about the fact that she wanted to learn tai chi (Exhibit D), or the time she uncupped her hands to give me an origami (Exhibit E) of a tiny blue bird?

Then there was the night she wanted to cook me dinner, an odd whim, because she couldn’t cook—at all. Turck had a lounge on every floor with a stove, sink, and microwave, and there she whipped up an unholy concoction of frozen vegetables, shredded day-old chicken-salad sandwiches from the snack bar with the bread (which was sourdough!), a sprinkling of cashew nuts, and an entire jar of plum sauce (Exhibit F), all mashed together and sautéed in a wok (Exhibit G) and served in rice bowls (Exhibit H) with chopsticks (Exhibit I).

It’s good!” I told her, naturally.

And then there was this conversation:

Your hair is so straight,” she said. “Is it this straight all over?” (Exhibit J.)

All over? Well, not completely straight. A little wavier, maybe.”

Let me see.” She lifted my left arm and peered through the sleeve at my armpit. Then she said, “What about down there?”

Where? You mean . . . my pubes?”

Uh-huh.”

The same, I guess.”

I suppose I’ll have to check it out sometime for myself.”

Things like that last statement made me ignore the strong circumstantial case that was building up against Sourdough, the sobriquet becoming more apt by the minute. I told myself I was being paranoid. So what if she was going a little Asian on me, so what if she’d contracted a bit of yellow fever? Maybe all the evidentiary pieces were merely coincidental, or just gestures of attraction, misguided as they were. She was simply trying to tell me she liked me. Anyway, I was being unduly influenced by our increasingly avid make-out sessions, by all the smooching, sucking, and licking, the groping, stroking, and grinding—they were turning me Japanese, making my testicularity bluer than origami.

Finally, one night in my dorm room, after hours of spit-swapping on the floor, Didi whispered, “Do you have a condom?”

Did I have a condom? Was she kidding? Did I have a condom? I had at least eight dozen condoms. I had condoms of every shape, color, size, material, texture, thickness, and flavor. I had condoms that were ribbed and studded, that tickled and tingled, that were lubed and edible, that heated up and glowed in the dark. For a month, I had been hoarding condoms—buying variety packs at the drugstore, palming them from the bowl in the health clinic, grabbing multiple free handouts during Safe Sex Week.

I think I might have one,” I said.

Okay,” she said, “let’s do it.”

Are you sure?” I asked, then regretted asking. I’d had a feeling that tonight might be the night, and had even leaked the premonition to Joshua, yet everything felt as if it were tottering in suspension. I didn’t dare do anything that might make Didi change her mind.

Turn off the lights,” she said.

I did.

Take off your clothes and get into bed.”

I did.

Put on the condom.”

I did.

I waited. I lay on my tiny bed on its stilts, sheathed by the condom, and I waited. “Didi?”

She was still standing below me. “Wait, what time is it?” she asked.

The time?”

It’s eleven-seventeen! I totally forgot. I have another date!” she said, and chortled weirdly. “I’m late!” Then she ran out the door.

What the hell?

I glanced down at my sensi-dotted, ultra-invigro, xtra–stimulation condom (orange, mint). Didi was not a virgin, but she was as inexperienced as I was and somewhat priggish—the residual Catholic schoolgirl. Or so I had assumed. I had never imagined she might be dating someone else simultaneously. If anything, I had worried she might be attaching too much significance to our dalliances. But now I had to recalibrate. Had I been completely mistaken about her? Was Didi, in fact, a closet hussy?

I snapped off the condom. I was miffed and angry, but eventually I fell asleep, only to be awoken at around one in the morning by a knock on the door.

In the hallway was Didi, holding a pint of Ben & Jerry’s White Russian ice cream and a bottle of vodka. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t have another date. I don’t know why I said that. I freaked out a little. Okay, a lot. Do you like White Russians? Do you have a couple of glasses and a spoon and maybe another condom?”

All was forgiven. 

Reprinted from The Collective by Don Lee. Copyright © 2012 by Don Lee. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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About Don Lee

Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel The Collective. He is also the author of the novel Wrack and Ruin, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize; the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction; and the story collection Yellow, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop. All of his books have been published by W. W. Norton.

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