Leland Cheuk’s The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong
“The fantasies that stay with me even today are the ones I had doing silly things to make her smile”
Narratives built on top of intergenerational conflicts within immigrant families may seem played out, especially in Asian American offerings. Yet the collective journey through which Leland Cheuk’s debut novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, grinds up those tropes into numerous permutations across a century and a half of American history earns the reader’s attention with its sardonic wit and immersive characterizations.
The highly charged and richly explored interpersonal dysfunctions between each pairing of husband and wife, or parent and child in this opus wring the character dynamics free from the familiar clashes of “cultural values”. This prevents the respective players from manifesting as mere metaphors for respective eras, and ground them as individually divergent decisions made over an ever-limited set of incompatible life options.
Similarly, Cheuk deftly avoids the obviousness of presenting Asian stereotypes head-on, by depicting them with a more visceral approach that puts the reader in the same painful headspace as the character. For example, rather than calling out the demeaning assumption that Asian men possess undersized genitalia, the novel curses its titular character with chronic groin pulls that intrude upon his already-dormant sex life, in addition to his health in general. Sulliver’s masculinity is sub-par by his own admission, yet his personal failings never need feel specific to any ethnic or cultural background.
As character foils to Sulliver, the relative alpha males that dot the narrative landscape are broadly drawn, yet are given just enough backstory of their own to flesh out the thinking behind their decisions, and the gestation of their personalities. We meet these antiheroes, such as Sully’s father, mogul cum corrupt politician Saul, both in the nadir of their lives, as well as in their formative primes. Every key cog in the Pong line is briefly summarized in the opening chapters, and is then given his own turn as temporary protagonist in the bittersweet tales that unfold.
None of these characters are made readily palatable for literary consumption, and so the experience hinges on the reader’s ability to relate to their amorality despite an abundance of self-awareness of both sides of the page. Successfully doing so yields a deep discomfort, but Cheuk leaves just enough room for potential redemptions throughout to bolster the reader’s resolve. The dramatic swings are measured yet kept enough at arm’s length that one is never quite sure how they will come about, even when the text has made quite clear that they are imminent.
Ultimately, the hero of the piece must find a way both to stop running from, and avoid being defined by, his sullied family history. This is another way of depicting the identity crisis that has long been synonymous with the immigrant experience in America, but is by no means tired or rote — these challenges remain as relevant as ever, especially as personal possibilities evolve around them. By de- and reconstructing our expectations for the eternal Second Generation, these first-born Americans across time, Sulliver Pong lets us laugh at our shared mistakes while owning them without fear.