The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong
By Leland Cheuk
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
Much like a floating signifier in semiotics, the true soul of Leland Cheuk's The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is always shifting and impossible to pin down. The narrative is an emotionally gritty look at familial relationships that are anchored in chaos and deceit as well as an exploration of Otherness in the context of a Chinese/Chinese-American family that has already spent several generations in the United States. However, the novel is also a hilarious tale about a man whose cowardice and overpowering father force him into something that will change his life forever. Last but not least, the novel deals with a plethora of themes like loyalty, prostitution, loneliness, friendship, and politics. The result is a deep, entertaining tragicomedy that touches on various generations and proves that, regardless of what migration can do for a family, the worst thing that can happen to it is a lack of love, support, honesty, and understanding.
The Pongs are an American immigrant family whose members have seen, experienced, and suffered everything. Their narratives, like those of most other immigrant families, are closely tied to that of this nation. From helping to build the transcontinental railroads of the Victorian Age to becoming the name of one of the most well-known video games in history, the Pongs have seen it all. Unfortunately, something hangs like a curse over each generation: every patriarch is an abusive degenerate. While Saul Pong is probably one of the worst, his son Sulliver is supposed to be the one to break the mold. Sulliver moves away from Bordirtoun, a small town to which the Pong name has been tied for generations and where his father is the mayor, and moves to Copenhagen, where he is somewhat happily married.
He hasn't been to his hometown in years, but that all changes when his father shows up unannounced and tells Sulliver his mother is not well in the head. Instead of taking care of his mother for a while and returning home quickly, a series of events that starts with a painful groin injury forces Sulliver to stay in Bordirtoun, where his father has already made him part of his dirty politics, especially a shady redevelopment scheme that has part of the city up in arms. Seeing the way his father manipulates and tricks him as well as the way he abuses his mother, Sulliver decides to declare political war on his father. What follows is an uproarious and devastating narrative full of anger, scheming, and the inner workings of a crumbling family.
The first thing that stands out about The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is Cheuk's ability to maintain a bizarre balance between comical scenes and conversations and profound, emotionally devastating passages and situations. Yes, there is a lot of physical humor and snappy, witty banter as well as a cast of characters that regularly will make the reader burst out laughing or cringe, but that is only half the book. The other half of the narrative is incredibly dark. There is emotional and psychological abuse, torn relationships, murder, stress, and a lot of crying and screaming. Sulliver, who retells everything from prison, is in the middle of all of it, and the fact that he's a likeable character makes the rough parts even harder on the reader, like after Sulliver has one of many fights with his mother:
Was I hurt? When your mother wishes you never existed (out loud), you feel a particular hard pinch of the testes. The relevant question was not whether I was hurt; it was how I would react to Momma's latest affront. Could I be Zen and choose not to retaliate? Could I remain stoic, like I often am now when a fellow prisoner spits in my face or deals me a racial epithet? Could I channel my inner Mahatma and make my life my statement? That was the relevant question, and the answer was no.
The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong touches on so many lives and themes, it becomes easy to lose track of the fact that it works wonderfully well as three separate stories that the author somehow braided together: a black comedy about a dysfunctional family; a narrative about a man explaining himself to others and realizing how many times in his life he stood by while things happened to him; and a cautionary tale about family and politics that, even in its absurdity, shines as a critique of some of the ways both of those things operate.
Ultimately, what makes this novel a must-read is that, beyond the commentaries on lineage, Otherness, denial, and patriarchal nonsense, Cheuk has a knack for both humor and dialogue that translates into fast-paced prose that is a pleasure to read. Few authors have an understanding of balance so profound that it ends up on the page, and Cheuk is one of the few who pulls that off. This is a gloomy, depressive read, but one that is also uproarious and wildly, sometimes even inappropriately, entertaining.