Sandi Tan‘s new book, Lurkers, tells the story of Santa Claus Lane’s residents in Alta Vista, a nondescript Los Angeles suburb. The concept for this, her second novel, couldn’t be more different than her first. The Black Isle (2011) tells a history of 20th century Asia through the eyes of a woman who can see ghosts and through the eponymous Black Isle: a composite of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Tan’s own Singapore.
In contrast, Lurkers begins with references to the videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Christina Aguilera’s 2002 album, Stripped. Meanwhile, Tan’s 2018 film Shirkers is an autobiographical documentary about her attempt to make a feature film in Singapore. Despite the similarity in name between her film and her second novel, she seems intent on making each of her projects as different as possible from the last.
At the outset of the novel, we are introduced to the Park family: South Korean immigrants Mr. and Mrs. Park and their teenage daughters Rosemary and Mira. Mr. Park’s suicide leaves behind a collection of hitherto undiscovered short stories, which regrettably turn out to be dreadful. The late Mr. Park’s “naïve unschooled prose” make him a kind of literary Tommy Wiseau. Mrs. Park’s plan to get these posthumously-discovered works published takes her to the first of her neighbors, Raymond van der Holt. Raymond is an aging writer of horror novels (he prefers to call them “blood epics”) and now a lonely suburbanite.
Also on Santa Claus lane are Mary-Sue Ireland and her adopted daughter Kate, who was brought from Vietnam to the USA by Operation Babylift. Now fully grown, and unable to reconnect with her Vietnamese roots, Kate has to deal with the reappearance of Bluto, her adolescent boyfriend. Bluto, who has since high school turned into a sort of off-brand version of Vladimir Nabokov‘s Humbert Humbert, is the first of three malevolent presences in the novel.
The second is Mr. Zehring, Rosemary’s drama teacher. He demands “raw honesty” from his students but soon turns out to be cut from the same cloth as Bluto. The third is Arik, Rosemary’s priapic and vengeful boyfriend. These characters propel the narrative forward and are simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. It’s maddening to read as they manipulate the female residents of Santa Claus Lane.
Tan’s other characters may be less menacing, but they are no less intriguing. They are layered, well-observed, and often flawed, but always in ways that’ are wince-inducingly recognizable. Whether it be Raymond’s world-weariness, Mrs. Park’s homesickness for Korea, or the resentment that seems to simmer in the Ireland household, all these emotions are well-described and have a strange familiarity to them.
Another of Lurkers’ strangely familiar recurring themes is creative failure and dissatisfaction. Mr. Park’s posthumously discovered stories are an embarrassment to his daughters: “there was something morbidly enticing about reading such bizarrely bad writing – by somebody so close to them, and so dead.” Raymond’s blood epics are riddled with clichés of the genre. Meanwhile, Kate reacquaints herself with the collages she made with Bluto during their adolescence. She now sees them as “the private craft projects of two unhappy teenagers who shared an affinity for certain pop-culture references and were sheltered enough to think that this made them brilliant.” If that sentence made you laugh and also touched a nerve, then the sardonic, often acerbic humor of Lurkers will appeal to you.
Though a sarcastic mood pervades the novel, this makes the touching and profound moments all the more poignant. This is especially true of Tan’s gut-punching description of the 1975 Tân Sơn Nhứt C-5 plane crash. It’s also true of the novel’s ending: the odd yet poignant mix of emotions in the final pages will leave you holding the closed book, staring into space.
Readers who require a single central conflict or a strictly linear progression may find Lurkers’ anfractuous structure unwieldy, but there’s something cinematic about how Lurkers works. The novel recalls the winding yet interconnected narratives of Robert Altman films like Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). While Nashville profiled the USA’s ambiguous mood in the run-up to its bicentennial, Lurkers positions itself between two epoch-making disasters: 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.
The mid-2000s setting of most of Lurkers’ action is just far enough in the past to feel like another epoch before the always-connected technology of smartphones, and social media really took over our lives. Yet Lurkers is not nostalgic for this era or for is its popular culture unless Tan was deadly serious when she wrote, “he looked irresistible in his Green Day t-shirt and the cargo shorts that ended high enough to showcase his down-covered calves.” Along with Samantha Stark’s recent documentary, Framing Britney Spears (2021), currently streaming on Hulu, Lurkers feels like one of the first narratives to give sustained attention to this time period.
The book’s epigraph is from cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), a book that argues that the ritualistic nature of late medieval life was a defense against increasing uncertainty and chaos. As Huizinga says: “so violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses.”
Lurkers will leave you with this mixed smell, with mixed feelings about the maddening complexity of human beings, and definitely, and with mixed feelings about the mid-2000s, an era that feels a bit distant, yet is close still enough to remain undefined.