Welcome to the Afterparty of the American Dream

Anthony Veasna So’s electric story collection sketches a world where the lights are dimmer, the truths blurrier, the hangover incoming.

Red Solo cups between the American and Cambodian flags
Getty; The Atlantic

In addition to being freighted with hardship, the American immigrant experience is occasionally hilarious. Misunderstandings, wonky translations, and cultural exchanges gone wrong are inevitable fodder for comedy—the question is who gets to enjoy the punch line. In her book Minor Feelings, the Korean American poet Cathy Park Hong describes humor as potentially liberating for the Asian immigrant, but also dangerous: The “Asian accent,” after all, is still one of the “last accents acceptable to mock”; there’s even a “sitcom-friendly” version, “used by no Asian except for Asian American actors onscreen,” of whom there are few. When they find themselves performing for mainstream America, immigrants and their kids know well the distinction between laughing with and laughing at; sometimes, it can simply come down to how many white people are in the audience.

Exposed to the outside air, an in-joke or a funny anecdote can oxidize into shame or racist ridicule. It’s usually easier, as Hong suggests, to internalize the condescension by preemptively laughing at yourself and your heritage, by putting on the outrageous accent before anyone else does. For many immigrants and their children, political consciousness begins only with the realization that the joke isn’t funny anymore. The risk is that this insight renders you humorless for good.

Anthony Veasna So’s story collection, Afterparties, has almost no white people in it but plenty of humor. The book—which is being published posthumously, after So’s untimely death last year—follows a loose grouping of second-generation Cambodian Americans and their families. These young people have in common a propensity for digression and wisecracking, for hamming up even their own private monologues. Most of them are residents of California’s dusty Central Valley, where the neighborhood staples are family businesses run by Cambodians, for Cambodians. In “The Shop,” a narrator wryly describes his father, a local mechanic, as the origin of a “whole ecosystem, both in terms of providing a service to the neighborhood and also providing twelve Cambo men with jobs.”

Community in Afterparties is thus not so much “tight-knit” as coiled in on itself, the insularity not always a choice or a boon. Unlike what one character terms “mainstream East Asians,” many of whom, beginning in the mid-’60s, entered the U.S. to take on professional work in white-collar or STEM fields, most first-generation Cambodian Americans arrived as refugees fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. In So’s writing, their children and grandchildren fight and live and drink with one another in the patchy remembrance of this horror; still, they lurch toward something beyond diasporic trauma. In response to elders’ tales of Pol Pot and concentration camps, So’s younger characters are just as likely to roll their eyes as they are to flinch: Every grandma in the community, one teenager complains, “has been a psycho since the genocide.”

In So’s stories, the past settles over daily life like a film of strange particulate matter. Afterparties’ first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” follows a pair of sisters who have been roped into working at a faltering doughnut store by its owner, their mother. They spend their shifts observing a lone man who regularly comes in to order without eating. The sisters think he looks like their absent father; the mother fears he could be associated with “a criminal organization of ex–Khmer Rouge officials.” The truth turns out to be so mundane that it borders on cliché, but as So knows, history—like a trick of light—gleams and bounces off the present, making it harder for the immigrant to see what’s right in front of her.

Afterparties is a world dappled in patterns of light and dark humor; readers trespass, knowing that the jokes are funny but not always made for their benefit. So’s humor is free from hand-wringing over appropriateness or respectability politics. There’s only the snarky aside, which gives the reader a feeling of being privileged, in the sense of being specially chosen as a confidant. “Nothing’s special,” one story’s narrator complains, “about an adulthood spent in the asshole of California, which some government official deemed worthy of a bunch of PTSD’d-out refugees.” Irreverent lines like these suggest that So trusted his reader as much as he loved his subjects. Rather than stage his characters in easily comprehensible postures, gathering them around the mythic American dream at self-serious angles, he shows them to us as they loll about in the dream’s afterparty. Here the lights are dimmer, the truths blurrier, the hangover incoming. There are no easy answers on how characters might digest communal trauma or shrug off the past, yet they continue to ask themselves the same question that closes “The Shop”: “But what,” wonders the narrator, “will we do after?”

The collection abounds with comedic figures who sometimes read like the community’s own roster of Shakespearean archetypes: the washed-up badminton coach, the masturbating monk, the Phnom Penh diva who sings at weddings and drinks “tea brewed only with Evian mineral water.” These individuals are known intimately by So’s protagonists, who are also aware of how archetype, in its encounter with discrimination and poverty, might harden into stereotype: the jester turned laughingstock. One narrator describes a “long legacy of shitty guys” from the neighborhood, “who spent their adulthood sleeping on their mom’s couch and eating their mom’s food.” Soon he witnesses his own role model, the aforementioned badminton coach, wilt into this same bathetic predictability. The sense is of individuals thrashing against their expected outlines, which tend to snap back with terrible elasticity.

Such is the dual nature of community: Structurally, an ecosystem can look a lot like a negative cycle. Most characters find that their trajectories end up bending backwards—that fateful, post-college return to living with one’s parents—and indeed, Afterparties itself traces a curiously circular pattern. The same people recur throughout the collection, suddenly aged or moved around, and certain stories explore the Cambodian Buddhist belief in reincarnation, which younger characters mock but can’t totally disavow. The narrator of “The Shop” thinks about “everyone who had died [in the genocide], two million points of connection reincarnated into the abyss,” and “how young Cambos like me should repopulate the world with more Cambos, especially those with fancy college degrees.” His admission is half glib and half sincere. The reader comes to understand that repetition, far from being predictable or boring, is both funny (the fool who falls and stands and falls again, for example) and necessary.

In an essay for n+1, So once wrote that “repetition allows for reinvention,” wherein cycles—and their ruptures—enable “fresh understandings, radical feelings never before experienced.” This kind of possibility is on view in “Human Development,” a story that follows a young man as he worries over the stifling familiarity of his relationship with a fellow second-generation “Cambo.” A sexual adventure he has—an almost-transcendent threesome—allows him to observe himself anew: “We took turns in each position, in each role, to the point that we became interchangeable, mere parts of an improved system of fucking.” His angst about identity unresolved, the narrator nevertheless walks away with a new capacity for surprise. “I wondered then, at the impossibility of my existence. Here I was!”

As the collection’s title suggests, Afterparties is interested in gatherings and groupings: moments when communal insularity turns weird, skewing in unexpected directions. “I’ll stop thinking of myself as one thing, and as part of another,” declares one character, who briefly joins a temple. Notably, such insights arrive not through monogamous romance, but through something messier and more crowded. Group communion for So seems to open a space between predictability—the paths of immigrant life, so fated by history and struggle—and randomness: the stupid joke turned sublime, the realization that an intimate actually feels like a stranger, or vice versa. Only in the midst of others can a person hope for the circuit to switch, the pattern to change, the cycle’s arrow to judder and, gradually, start pointing elsewhere.