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Watching TV with the Red Chinese.

Three Chinese students - Wa, Chen, and Tzu - arrive in Cleveland in late 1980 to study SSM: Systems Science and Mathematics. Their neighbor across the hall, Dexter Mitchell, or Mitch, becomes their guide through the complexities of contemporary America. He is also the book's narrator. The Chinese students ask Mitch about TV game shows, football, and American idioms. Mitch's friend Billy Owens begins filming a documentary entitled Watching TV with the Red Chinese.

This is where Luke Whisnant's Watching TV with the Red Chinese begins its hip, quirky, interspliced tale of sexual obsession, culture shock, and aesthetics. Whisnant does an excellent job portraying the Chinese students. Wa is a serious party-line Communist, worried that "Western decadence" will harm him and his friends. Chen is wide-eyed and interested. He wants to know all about America. He plays at being American: eating Big Macs, wearing blue jeans, dating Suzanne Betts, a tall redhead who drives a sports car. But Chen also confesses confusion at the plethora of products, the dizzying advertising barrage that is American television. Tzu is somewhere between Wa and Chen. While not as concerned as Wa is about capitalism, Tzu still remains aloof from American life, viewing it from a bemused distance.

The Chinese have stumbled into Mitch's life as he is struggling to come to grips with rejection. Suzanne Betts, after dating him a few times, has moved on. He obsesses on her, though not as badly, he points out, as Mick Czapinczyk: "Zap for short, a Tristan Tzara sort who affected a neo-punk wardrobe: camouflage fatigue pants, jungle boots, Hawaiian print shirts, and cardboard 3-D glasses from the Ninth Street Cinema." Zap follows Suzanne around town and makes threatening phone calls to the men she dates.

Watching TV with the Red Chinese is a tour de force of the contemporary deconstructionist novel. What makes it such an excellently readable book, however, is the simple fact that the theory always plays second fiddle to the story. Mitch ends up, through the undeniable force of events, affirming causal continuity and the traditional narrative and denying deconstruction. Some readers might find the book's traumatic ending contrived; I found it powerful as a revelation that our lives follow strange paths which seem simultaneously beyond belief and fated.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jones, Jordan
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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