Motherfuckerland by Ed Lin

I knew from the title I would either love this book or hate it.

You see, I’m a big fan of the word Fuck. It’s an amazing word, let’s face it. No other word in the English language has such a multiplicity of meanings in different contexts. But using the word Fuck – especially its stronger phraseology, Motherfucker – in a book title can backfire. It can signal a story that’s all shock value and no substance.

To my great glee, Motherfuckerland has plenty of substance... and plenty of shock value as well.

From the first line of the first page I loved this book (I finished it, sniggering all the way, in two days). I tore through it without knowing much about Ed Lin, apart from his name – yet the fact that you can guess he’s both male and Asian adds significant context, in a tale that deals with both race and gender. Later, when I realised who Ed Lin actually is (an award-winning Taiwanese-American author who made his name writing crime novels based around a Chinese American detective), his background added even more layers to Motherfuckerland.

You don’t really read Motherfuckerland for its riveting story – it is the antithesis of a crime novel. Nothing much happens to our largely well-intentioned but mostly clueless slacker hero, Sean Kerry (yes, a White boy). He gets ‘done’ for smoking marijuana. He gets a dead-end job at a fast-food stand. He spends a long, ennui-filled summer smoking more pot, hitting on married women, and half-heartedly trying to please the officer in charge of his case. He drifts through the story, stoned and stupid, and everything that happens, happens at him. There is, in fact, a detective story woven into the narrative, but our hero is so spaced-out, he doesn’t notice it until the very end, and questions none of the significant clues dropped into the story.

Most of the story is told in conversation, a tactic that allows the reader that cheeky fly-on-the-wall feeling; Sean’s reactions and emotions happen largely in whatever way you interpret them, based on his speech. For instance, when he gormlessly asks his Black officer why he has an Irish name, and the response is, of course, ‘Some Irish slave owner raped my great-great-great grandmother’, Sean’s actual reaction isn’t described. He could be embarrassed and shifty; or he could be mindlessly grinning like the stereotypical stupid White kid.

Race is tackled with an ironic touch, in ways that only a non-white writer probably would be allowed to in America. Sean is dragged to by his Black officer to Black neighbourhoods, where he doesn’t feel safe – not because he is racist, but because he really isn’t safe. He falls in love with a married Indian lady, and gets angry when anti-immigrant vandals damage her door; but this ends with him just being impotently defensive, taking no real action.

Sean Kerry, representing young white Americans, is the epitome of someone whose ignorance appears to be racism, but isn’t; he seems genuinely to want to do ‘the right thing’. It’s just the ‘right thing’ in Sean’s world is a nebulous, out-of-reach, unattainable goal, and Sean offers nothing of value to those around him except a kind of vague goodwill.

Ed Lin’s succinct, subtle yet sharp humour gave me the weird feeling of being both in Sean’s head (drifting along, warm and lazy, in a haze of marijuana and passive confusion) and standing beside him, laughing at the poor kid for his absolute cluelessness. Alas, in truth, there probably are a lot of Sean Kerrys in the world; and by the end of the book, Ed Lin successfully made me feel for them.


by Meihan Boey