Friday September 14, 2012
The triumphant loser
Review by ELAINE DONG
The Choke Artist – Confessions Of A Chronic Underachiever
Author: David Yoo
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 259 pages
THE author David Yoo, an American Korean, claims to be a failure in life and that is the premise of this book when, in fact, he is an award-winning and published writer. That’s the contradiction one has to grapple with when reading this book.
He paints not too pretty a picture of being an under-achieving Asian American growing up in a mainly white neighbourhood, thwarted by his over-achieving sister at every bend of the road. Even his parents seem to give up on him, when his hopeful start as a tennis prodigy at a young age quickly dwindles into a mess of insecurity and self-sabotage.
And that sets the tone of the book. He takes one step forward and five steps back. Every key point in his life is marked by failure, or at best, mediocrity, and high school was a tortuous rite of passage.
With self-deprecating humour, he makes you laugh out loud quite a lot. This is an extremely funny book. The only thing is, halfway through the book, you start to ask yourself: how is this guy ever going to gain any kind of self-esteem with the blows that are dealt him? Is he never going to get a break?
Well, apparently he did, when he won NYPL Best Book Teen Age Selection and Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best for his young adult novels. But reading this book, you would just be laughing at Yoo’s misadventures and thinking what a loser he is.
Perhaps that is what he wants to get across. That a loser like him can win. That the human spirit triumphs. But this is far from being a motivational book. On every page, Yoo talks about his inadequacies and failings. Depressed yet?
Yoo is fully aware of the circumstances of his failures or almost successes – laziness. He admits so throughout the book, so much so that you would feel like slapping him. If he knew he was being lazy and not trying hard enough, why does he not do something about it?
I think Yoo taps into a basic fear that everyone has: we’re all just frauds waiting to be found out. In the context of the American readership, where flamboyant success and outspokenness are celebrated, Yoo speaks to the vast majority – people just like him who are coasting along the mid-line, neither outstanding nor really bad. They will read this memoir and sigh in relief that someone out there is even worse off than they are.
But the clincher is, he’s really not. He’s a talented writer, one who has won awards. He will be receiving book royalties for the rest of his life, despite having spent his entire working life temping.
The last few pages of the book show him arriving at his epiphany, that he can write. These pages show a shift in his mind-set. He has finally found something to latch on to that would not categorically make him a failure. Reading this book is like watching a good old slapstick comedy. You would laugh a lot and at the end of it, if someone asks you what the story was about, you would not be able to tell. You would just say it was funny.