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Sheer Cheek

I recently read an article by Julian Bell in the New York Review of Books about Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the British art establishment compared, at times, to the American artist, Jeff Koons. Both men share the gift of self-promotion—both have become very rich—though artistically Hirst is more interesting to me because of his particular brooding audacity, what critics in the UK call “sheer cheek.” Like all successful artists, he is repeating himself, but his innovations remain startling: the carcass of a cow’s head dripping blood in a vitrine, a decomposing shark. Are these installations only meant to shock? Or stop the viewer in her tracks? What am I meant to think about? What am I meant to see? What is of interest here?

One could and should ask the same question of contemporary fiction, if indeed we dare. Or narrative nonfiction for that matter. How many writers explore new forms beyond the expected or iconic? Not many. Yet there are two Asian-American writers I’d like to mention here whose innovations in form may not be as disquieting as Hirst’s, but are just as compelling. Neither are self-promoting; they have arrived on their talent.

First Katherine Boo who received the Pulitzer for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” a piece of enterprising immersion journalism told with respectful rectitude. And second, Julia Otsuka. In her first book, “When The Emperor Was Divine,” Ms. Otsuka finds a way into the story of the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans through the eyes of a child. The book is so poignant that is difficult to read in one sitting. And in her most recent book, “The Buddha in the Attic,” the point of view is even more unusual as there is no central character; the protagonist is the entire community and its troubled history on the American continent. Based on extensive research, it is almost a book of lists and is closer to documentary nonfiction than fiction.

Like Damien Hirst, Julia Otsuka and Katherine Boo are not risk averse. But whether an American publisher would have published their unusual books if they were raw newcomers and had not already been successful, we will never know.

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