Crazy Rich Asians | Book Review
While reading the number one #BeachRead of 2018, one thought lodged itself in the back of my brain: Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians is the Instagram of books. This may seem an odd thought; one is a strategically ink-smudged tree carcass and the other an online photo-sharing service. But the connection between CRA and Instagram came to my mind almost immediately. They were both addicting, and they both made me feel kind of… sad?
It has been a while since I used Instagram, but when I did, I used it frequently - probably a couple times every hour. It felt good giving and getting attention for interesting photos and captions. But I also remember my life feeling more faded with every scroll. Compared to the raucous high-contrast novelty of my feed, the regular routine of my life was mundane. Perhaps my path through life is particularly dull, but my mental armor does not seem particularly weak - studies on social media use have revealed a positive correlation with depression and anxiety. 1 The evidence collected so far isn’t strong enough to claim a causal link, but it aligns with my experience. My glumness was in some sense external, or at least not consistent with other parts of my mind. I thrive in a life governed by routine. Keeping many things static frees up my mind to make slow incremental progress towards my goals. If I had to live it, the life shown on my Instagram feed would exhaust me without moving the progress bar of my life forward. And yet I kept pulling-to-refresh. In fact, I only found the #strength to leave Instagram after the rise of finstas - a seperate, more private instagram account used mainly to gossip with close friends. This additional pressure to find yet another vein in the mountain of my life to strip-mine for social media points broke Instagram for me.
But books and social media platforms are quite different - why draw a link between Instagram and CRA? Leaving Instagram (and various other social media platforms) sensitized me to the addictive-and-desaturating sensation that I associated with their use. And in some ways CRA was a stronger vector for this feeling than Instagram, for all its algorithms. Books make your brain do they heavy lifting when you read them - you have to imagine the wizardry when you read Harry Potter rather than simply register it when you watch Harry Potter. This is actually a strength of books - when a beloved character dies it happens inside you rather than on a screen. So when CRA opens with a character wielding incomprehensible wealth as a weapon against a racist hotel manager, you feel righteous and powerful. Until you remember that your wealth is all too comprehensible. At least on Instagram you can put a filter on your pictures - perhaps banks should institute a similar feature.
CRA isn’t poorly written - in fact I found it hard to put down. While it doesn’t spend much time developing its characters, CRA uses its pages to floridly describe oppulence. The depictions are well-crafted, incorporating art, fashion, and cuisine. Reading the book feels like learning about actual people living actual lives, just like scrolling through Instagram felt like keeping up with the lives of my friends. It also avoids the pitfalls of tokenism, in my opinion. Slang and history are used to ground the characters and locales, rather than exoticize them.
Kevin Kwan uses culture as a lens through which wealth is shown. Extravagent art (“He didn’t have any Rothkos or Pollocks or the other dead American artists one was required to hang on the wall in order to be considered truly rich these days.”) is displayed. Extravagent food (“It’s always guesswork when you’re eating cuisine, even more so when it’s Pacific Rim fusion molecular cuisine.”) is consumed. Extravagent fashion (“Astrid was the first to pair a vintage Saint Laurent Le Smoking jacket with three-dollar batik shorts bought off a beach vendor in Bali, the first to wear the Antwerp Six, and the first to bring home a pair of red-heeled stilettos from some Parisian shoemaker named Christian.”) is worn. And just as culture permeates the displays of wealth, the displays of wealth permeate the structure of the book. If there’s a character we’re supposed to dislike, we’re supposed to dislike them because of how they relate to wealth. One such character forces his family into expensive designer clothes just to preen for the paparazzi. He eventually recieves his comeuppance, but through a process in which the protagonist receives a diamond necklace that allows her to display wealth and get higher status. When the book uses money and status as its moral currency, it undercuts any lesson about the dangers of wealth-based peacocking. In fact it implies that justice and wealth are entangled.
A key theme in Crazy Rich Asians is the struggle to integrate into an unfamiliar world. The less wealthy, female lead struggles to gain acceptance in the world of the more wealthy, male lead. CRA makes it clear that this is a one-way struggle; the male protagonist effortlessly integrates with his counterpart’s enviroment. This pattern is further mirrored in the B plot. The secondary protagonist’s marriage crumbles because her less wealthy husband fails to integrate into her world. The structure of the theme conflates success with the approval of those wealthier than you.
All of this sums to a feeling of discontent that doesn’t have a real basis. Crazy Rich people aren’t happier than the rest of us - additional income only makes you happier up to a point. 2 The hedonic treadmill inevitably wears luxury down to the mundane. But reading about people enjoying private jets and personal chefs makes you want to be rich. Reading about people who simply inherited their money and status makes you want to get rich without effort. That’s the kind of wish that doesn’t drive you to action, it just increases your longing. You want to win a lottery, but not just any lottery. Crazy Rich Asians makes you want to play the lottery of birth, which nobody - no matter how incomprehensibly wealthy - can buy another ticket for.