I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses was the second book I read on the beach in Mexico. It is a novel, but comprised of about a hundred and ten tiny chapters that could–and some that at one time were–be read as flash fiction. It is about an unnamed Asian-American man who inherits his previously-unknown five year old son, when the child’s white mother, a one-night stand, dies. The narrator takes on this child with trepidation but not a lot of hesitation, and begins to raise him with the help of his girlfriend, referred to as “the Wifely Woman.” There is also the “Asian girl” and the “white girl”–two women he has on the side, and his friend, Randy, the only person in the whole book that gets a name.
Race is, in large part, what the book is about. The narrator was picked up by the boy’s mother, years ago, when she came on to him with a ridiculous pick up line about “going yellow.” (I read in an interview that this happened to Salesses himself and he stuttered awkwardly and moved away, but then started thinking about who the man would be who would lean in to that situation). So the boy is half-white, but being raised now by two Asian-Americans–the narrator is of Korean descent while the Wifely Woman is of Chinese descent, a fact that disappoints the narrator’s mother. There’s a sweet scene where the narrator introduces the boy to Korean food. In one of the scenes I thought was most interesting, the Asian girl infiltrates the narrator’s other life and is upset most, he thinks, by the fact that the Wifely Woman is also Asian (and prettier). These sort of issues, raised by an Asian-American man, don’t get a lot of cultural play so it was gratifying to read about them being dealt with so specifically.
Although I was sort of appalled at how the narrator treated women (“GIRLS”) throughout the book, he was honest about the ways in which he used, needed, related to, and mistreated them. I liked that he wasn’t in denial or not realizing what he was doing. He realized and yet didn’t want to, or couldn’t, do better. This dysfunction did well to throw his growing attachment and relationship with the boy into relief. It also informed the way he and the Wifely Woman started to become more of an imperfect family once the boy depended on her, too. While all of the other women in the book were “girls” to him, she was always a “woman.” I could accept, even, that he didn’t give them names since he and the boy were also unnamed, but the naming of Randy threw me off–if I had one question to ask Salesses, it would be that–why did Randy get a name?
The writing is both straightforward (“I remembered the last summer, when the boy was sadder and happier.”) and evasive. Because each section was so short–many of them only five or six lines, there was no room to relax into a scene or to gather any extra information. Salesses gives the reader a handful of beautifully written lines and then gets out. I wished he would have stayed in a moment or two long enough to write it out–what would a six page section have looked like?–but that would have been a different book. This one was lovely, fragmented, withholding and poignant, without a single excess word.