Alex Arai has lived a life that externally, at least, seems modest, successful and unassuming. He teaches art history at a California university. He lives happily with his longtime partner, Lisa, and is the son of a famous sculptor, Kazuo Arai, a severe man, best known for his memorials to Japanese Americans interned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. Alex is best known for his scholarly articles about his father’s art.
But Alex is nearing the end of a long, slow burn. As a child, he tried to “contribute” to his father’s art, and the punishment has been slowly poisoning his own sense of self. Life is not going to let that continue. He begins to see one of his students, a strident young woman who is quite self-possessed and certain of her own artistic aptitude, as more than a student. And an acquaintance in his old-man basketball team hooks him up with a graffiti artist. When he picks up a can of spray paint, he finally finds a means with which to externalize a lifetime of seeing the world around him.
Andrew Kumasaka’s All Gone Awry is deceptively engrossing; it’s fun and perceptive, with an engaging cast of characters. The prose pulls you in, and the plot feels light-hearted. But Kumasaka is a very smart writer. By the time you’re turning the pages as fast as possible, you realize there’s a wealth of life here, as a series of complex and surprising events, ideas and revelations take hold. All Gone Awry tells one hell of a great story, to be sure, even as it dives deep into the role of art in any and every life. Kumasaka revels in the pleasures of dissonance, the distance between who we think we are and who we find ourselves to be. He takes us from a quiet life to bigger than life, from embarrassment and shame to joy and success so seamlessly that we as readers realize only afterwards that the journey is ours as well.
Kumasaka is also a master of showing, not telling. His meditations on the clash between culture and art underscore those on the Asian-American experience. Alex once saw himself as deeply immersed in a community, only to step outside and realize what he perceived as acceptance on the part of others was in fact acquiescence, the sublimation of his essential self. He’s forced to re-write his own story with a spray-paint can for the world to see. Whenever you think that Kumasaka is ready to call, he ups the ante. His prose, quiet but powerful and a playfully fun sense of plot make every twist of the knife and of life a reason to keep reading, driving right to the edge. You can see the cliffs around you, enjoy the view and experience the implications of falling, the messy impact of the art and arc of life. Everything seems to be speeding up. All Gone Awry feels fast, and in its wake, the waves follow, steadily unfolding to the horizon.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Andrew Kumasaka to discuss his thoughts in and about the creation of All Gone Awry. You can download the conversation from this link, or surf the audio waves from the player below.