Reinventing the Transformative Vision of America in Nabokov’s Cross-Country Chronicles

Thomas Dai on the Author's Butterfly-Hunting Excursions and His Own Relationship to the Road and American Identity

KINGSTON PIKE, TENNESSEE
By June, I’d started putting the pieces in motion. I went to Tennessee to renew my license and borrow my mother’s Camry. I fished my old butterfly net—a retractable aluminum pole with a hoop-shaped frame and a mesh bag—out of the closet, sublet my Arizonan apartment, sketched out a route in black Sharpie on a AAA map, told some friends I was coming, told other friends I was leaving, told my mother I was “writing,” and then drove her car onto the highway. I figured I had a few months, maybe less, before this wild inclination to see the country had disappeared or soured. I wanted to make the feeling count.

 

US ROUTE 61, MISSISSIPPI
At the Red Carpet Inn outside Natchez, a blond boy who looks too old for his diaper is loitering on the stairs. He’s holding a toy gun in his hand, which he points at me now like a question: bang bang?

I mime a rebuttal shot from below. The boy smiles. For several minutes, we strafe the night air with invisible bullets, we dodge and we dive, until the boy gets bored and retreats back to his room. Someone swats at a gap in the curtains, someone else returns with a bucket of ice. I drop my cigarette on the ground and exhale.

When it’s finally quiet, I can hear far above me, in the humid air that holds all sound, a plane passing in the night.

 

INTERSTATE 20, TEXAS
This is the summer of the record-breaking heat; the summer of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando; the summer every gay bar in the South plays “This Is What You Came For” by Rihanna and Calvin Harris; the summer of Lemonade and Captain America: Civil War; the summer of people in the streets demanding we “say their names” (Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile); the summer we’re shocked by our own American perdition, by drone strikes abroad and mass shootings at home; the summer of all my worst haircuts, and peeing in Starbucks cups while mired in traffic, and slipping a single cigarette behind my ear as I drive because I’m on break from my MFA and my intentions are artistic.

Outside Abilene, I hear on the radio that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts-per-million—a tipping point, the climate scientist on the line is saying. I set the radio to scan and the chatter refocuses around Pulse, then stocks, then Trump. Every other station is prayer.

I’m not unworried about the state of the world, its warming, all the gas I put in my tank, but still, some errand of the mind won’t wait. That errand is one of retrieval, though the man I’m following has hardly been lost. Over the course of his long life, the writer and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov authored more than fifty books in both English and Russian. One of those books, Lolita (1958), is now considered a classic American tale of perversion and road travel. Nabokov took to the road almost every summer while writing his opus. Setting off from either Cambridge or Ithaca, he could get as far as the Pacific coast and back in the course of a summer, jotting down notes on 5 × 7 index cards as prairie air gusted through a passenger-side window, or holing up for weeks of frenzied writing in a cabin outside Ashland, Oregon, or Afton, Wyoming. When not writing, he’d hunt butterflies in all the public parks and forgotten copses, wherever their wingbeats might beckon. “Every summer my wife and I go butterfly hunting,” Nabokov writes in the afterword to Lolita. “The locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first century scholar with a taste for recondite biography.”

I first heard about Nabokov’s road trips while doing research in a zoological museum at Harvard where he had worked as curator of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) decades before. Many of the insects Nabokov caught on his trans-American trips were still stored in the museum’s butterfly room, each specimen affixed to a label listing its Latin name, geographic provenance, date of capture, and collector. A framed portrait of the man, taken for Life magazine, hung over a table filled with microscopes. In the photo, he’s sitting at that same table, staring down his aquiline nose at a butterfly impaled on a pin. I spent much of a long winter toiling away beneath that gaze, reading Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory as I put the finishing touches on my senior thesis (a minor study of wing coloration in an obscure clade of neotropical butterflies). Unlike Nabokov, I did not relish the “precise and silent beauty” found at “the radiant bottom of a microscope’s magic shaft,” there where the tautly drawn lineaments of each insect could be teased out, dissected, and relieved of their pixie-dusted secrets. But during my brief stint in the museum, I did occasionally imagine I knew what Nabokov meant when he described the study of butterfly anatomy as that “delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”

My sense of time in that place would sometimes start to fibrillate, quivering in dense pockets of rococo detail that only the microscope’s “bright well-hole” could reveal. I would bumble about the museum of tiny dead things, pulling shards of color from the archives as the campus outside was draped in minimalist white. A faculty reviewer would later rebuke my thesis for hearkening back to a time when scientists still wrote by “quill and ink,” a complaint I took in stride, as it seemed to indicate that some of my other, unmentioned mentor’s lessons—lessons that pertained far outside of any lab—had stuck.

Unlike Nabokov, I did not relish the “precise and silent beauty” found at “the radiant bottom of a microscope’s magic shaft.”

In the final chapter of Speak, Memory, Nabokov likens his life to “a colored spiral in a small ball of glass.” This spiral has three distinct sections. Nabokov’s childhood in Russia, the “thesis” of his life, forms the spiral’s innermost curve, without which nothing else could make sense. This thesis is paired with its antithesis, the spiral’s second curve, in which Nabokov’s aristocratic family is expelled from Russia and strewn across Western Europe. A later migration, this time to America, inaugurates the third curve of the spiral, a time of happy middle-age and growing literary acclaim. Nabokov identifies this phase as a “synthesis—and a new thesis.” He would never set foot again in the Russia of his youth, but in America he recovered precious reminders of that place, which is to say he found that time, for him, was not always irreversible, that sometimes, while motoring down a roadway in central Colorado or upstate New York, one can be transported back to a Russia that both used to be and never was, an idyll in the mind that no amount of distance could possibly suppress.

Even if Speak, Memory’s magical sense of time appealed to me on some philosophical level, it was really how the book dealt with its themes of migrancy, loss, and the yearning for one’s idealized roots that most endeared its author to me. He was the emigrant artist par excellence, a writer who bore fierce attachments to both his port of lucky arrival (America) and his port of aggrieved departure (Russia). I nearly shivered every time I came across his declaration that he had to “invent America” before he could write about it, to traverse this nation as both a physical reality and a daunting piece of artifice. “I am driving off to California to-morrow with butterfly-nets, manuscripts and a new set of teeth,” Nabokov wrote in 1941 to his friend Edmund Wilson. It was the beginning of his first American road trip. He would see the north Texan plains, the Grand Canyon, the redwood forests near San Francisco. Years later, when asked by an interviewer what memories he held most dear, Nabokov responded with “Meadows. A meadow with Scarce Heath butterflies in North Russia, another with Grinnell’s Blue in Southern California. That sort of thing.”

My goal this summer is to find “that sort of thing,” to get as close as I can to the America that Nabokov invented and left in his wake, a shape as clear and yet untouchable as his “colored spiral in a small ball of glass.”

 

SPEEDWAY BOULEVARD, ARIZONA
I stop off in Tucson, where I’ve been living for almost a year. At the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, I look at some photographs by a man named Tseng Kwong Chi. Born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, educated in Paris, and drawn like many gay men to the bright lights of 1980s New York, Chi made a career out of creative interloping. His photo series East Meets West, also called The Expeditionary Series, documents the whimsical travels of an Asian man through the West. Dressed in a Mao suit, sunglasses, and slip-on loafers, Chi photographs himself before several iconic American backdrops, from Mount Rushmore to the Empire State Building. The cumulative effect of the series is part comedy, part discord—this caricature of Asian foreignness spliced into an American hagiography of place. An unknowing viewer might assume they are looking at photographs taken of a foreign dignitary’s press tour. Where has this intrepid Asian tourist not been? What exactly makes these scenes so American, this photographer so very not?

Looking at Chi’s images, I’m struck by the relative sincerity of my own Chinese American family’s photo albums, all those pictures of us hamming it up in front of the Liberty Bell or on top of the World Trade Center, my brother and me dressed in the orange and white of Tennessee Volunteers as excess SPF dripped down our cheeks. When we were young, my parents would take us on road trips to new places that were never really new. At dawn, we’d leave Knoxville-cum-Ithaca in our white Honda Odyssey to arrive by nightfall at some ticky-tacky timeshare whose dimensions and decor, whether we were in Memphis or Cincinnati, never changed. In this fashion, we saw DC and Niagara, Key West and the Big Easy. In every place we stopped, my mother would put the family point-and-shoot in action, and though I don’t believe this documentary impulse is restricted to Asian Americans, such collecting does seem to bear a dual significance for families who moved here from somewhere else. Each picture is not just a keepsake but an earnest assertion of belonging.

I like to think that Nabokov’s road trips were also such prosaic family affairs. He had his arrogances, but he did not dissemble, did not style himself as explorer or vagabond. He wasn’t Sal Paradise in On the Road or David Wojnarowicz in Close to the Knives. He wasn’t even John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Nabokov recalled driving a car only twice in his life, and both times he crashed. It was his wife Vera who drove the family Oldsmobile down all those western roads, who changed the flat tires and kept a pistol stowed in her purse. It was also Vera who, in remote lodges and borrowed summer homes, typed out each day’s sentences as her husband dictated from across the room. Dmitri, the couple’s only son, completed the family trinity. When asked once by a barber where his home was, Dmitri replied that he lived in “little houses by the road.”

Following their example, I have dispensed with any pressure to be daring, to litter my road trip story with close calls and empty bottles of Jack. I can drive at exactly the speed I like in my mother’s Toyota Camry, letting all the speedsters streak past in their Ford F-150s covered in patriotic bunting. I don’t even need to feign interest in what goes on beneath the hood, in that box of mysteries they call an engine, or to claim an unlikely felicity for long and punishing drives worthy of a veteran trucker. Indeed, I can be upfront in saying that road travel is my least favorite mode of transit, that for me, driving can flatten even the most astounding of landscapes, billboarding everything into an Econo Lodge–endorsed tableau of modern life (fireworks stores, oil derricks, all these shitty little towns of clapboard and gravel). The amiable “motor court” days of our national car culture have long elapsed, and a middle-class family like the Nabokovs would today opt for a well-rated Airbnb instead of a urea-smelling Super 8. Lacking adequate funds for either, I’ve brought along a tent and my nascent camping skills. Each night, I consult Freecampsites.net for a place to lay my head. If a likely option doesn’t avail itself, I park the car down some darkened Forest Service road, curl up in the coffee-stained back, and sleep.

 

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON ROAD, UTAH
My friend Meagan has elected to have her birthday at a yurt high up in the Uintas. All our Civics and Suburbans stall halfway up the mountain; only Meagan’s Subaru Outback makes it to the top. The woods up here are boggy with meltwater. I catch a brace of day-flying moths and a tiger-striped swallowtail. “Winged clichés,” Nabokov would’ve labeled them, lepidopteran riffraff.

When the festivities are over, I drive up to Alta, an apres-ski town where the Nabokovs summered in 1943. Late June in the Albion Meadows has few uncomely angles. I traipse about swinging my net, catching a few scions of Nabokov’s favorite butterfly family, the lycaenid blues. “I have trudged and climbed some 600 miles in the Wasatch Mts and made some superb entomological discoveries. Lovely melmoths and bread-and-butterflies,” he wrote to Wilson from Alta. A much lazier “lepist,” I keep to the lower trails where freshly emerged adults, wings still heavy with chrysalis juice, go astray in the columbine and Indian paintbrush. Some fly so slowly I can gather them by hand.

Meagan joins me for a few days of driving. The Camry hoards our candy wrappers and our gossip. We play “A Sorta Fairytale” by Tori Amos, “Amelia” by Joni Mitchell, and “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. Camping outside Telluride, we sleep in a grove of white aspen, each tree an offshoot from the same root system, their collective body known as a “trembling giant.” I lend Meagan my copy of Lolita to read, telling her that the book ends somewhere in the mountains near where we have staked our tent. That night, it rains so long and hard that the rainfly on my tent fails to keep us dry. We wake up in the morning to find that the words in Nabokov’s book have run together, the mélange of these days.

 

MORAINE AVENUE, COLORADO
Stopped over in a town of little glamor, Meagan and I decide it’s time to go out. I don a vintage satin jacket printed with a map of the world. She pulls on a black velvet dress and pointy pink pumps. We find a bar conveniently located by a Cici’s pizza franchise. We’re sitting inside, comparing Kardashians and drinking, when an older white man in head-to-toe denim comes over to speak with us. I expect him to buy Meagan a drink, but the man’s attention is strangely on me. He puts a hand very formally on my back, right over the former USSR, and looks me in the eyes in this queer, searching way. “You let him know if anyone here gives you trouble,” he says, nodding to the man behind the bar. Meagan and I say nothing. The man walks out of the bar, and I feel like I’m missing either a punchline or a punch.

He was the emigrant artist par excellence, a writer who bore fierce attachments to both his port of lucky arrival (America) and his port of aggrieved departure (Russia).

Earlier this summer, at a pool party in Atlanta, another man had approached me and my friend to hash out his feelings about Pulse. That man had wanted to understand how such a tragedy—forty-nine mostly brown and black men shot and killed in a gay night club—could still happen in what he kept calling “my America.” This man had his theories, and they all involved blaming the victim. “I just have to ask,” he said to us, the two most conspicuously homosexual people at the party, “why is it that y’all need to act like women?” My friend and I were just drunk enough for this shit, so we tag-teamed an intro lecture to Gender Studies 101, explaining to this man that how people perform their gender and whom they like to fuck are not necessarily related, that queerness is not just gender inversion, but a complex weave of different sexual practices and identities. By the end of our spiel, we realized we were talking to ourselves.

It feels ungenerous somehow to shove these two men into the same vignette, but both remind me of one of the American road trip’s basic tenets: i.e., that the people you meet are not there to illustrate your ideations of nationhood, that they too have their own snow globe nations in mind, and that sometimes you don’t fit into their concept of American rightness when you strut into their local saloon-style bar to order a whiskey pickle back and a veggie burger, that sometimes you arrive, in more ways than one, from a place far away that they define themselves against, and that sometimes they like the “diversity” you bring and sometimes they don’t.

Nabokov paid little mind to such questions of belonging as he traveled. He’d have Vera stop the car on a whim so that he could trawl the roadsides with his net. (Let any and all passersby gawk.) Though he and Vera both became US citizens in 1945, they rarely defined themselves by such pedestrian yardsticks as party and nation. If anything, Nabokov saw his own autobiography as the silken binding which held so many places, people, and objects together. Colorado, for him, was very much just a redux of a Russian childhood he’d already lived. Its alpine glens reeled him back to the countryside near Vyra, his mother’s sprawling estate outside St. Petersburg. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes of catching at Vyra a butterfly of particular beauty that he later lost, “a splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot.” Forty years later, Nabokov recaptured this specimen in America, perched on “an immigrant dandelion under an endemic aspen near Boulder.” Both butterfly and man have endured many displacements since last they met, but their essential identities—the names that go on the label—have not changed.

After dropping Meagan off at the airport, I drive in circles around the Denver suburbs, searching for any butterfly on an immigrant dandelion. In Estes Park, Colorado, Nabokov once spotted a hawkmoth of the genus Celerio, “poised above the water, facing upstream against a swift current, in the act of drinking.” That stream now flows past a Starbucks, a Shell, and many different parking lots, but for old times’ sake (his times, not mine), I go and stand on a bridge over the water, dead butterflies in my pocket, and turn my face into the current.

 

AVENUE X, KANSAS
Nabokov finished an early draft of Lolita in 1953, while lepping in Portal, Arizona. The book narrates a pederast named Humbert Humbert’s single-minded pursuit of a young girl named Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lo. After murdering Lo’s mother, he takes the girl on a road trip lasting many months, time enough that the pair “crossed and recrossed the Rockies,” experienced “agriculture on a grand scale” in the Midwest, and got to see the dubious sights of “Obvious Arizona.” Betwixt and between all these places, in parked cars and on motel bedspreads, Humbert fucks his ward.

This is the America that Humbert shows to Lolita: a sentimental patchwork, an absurdity, a kitschy decadence ideal for the solicitation of children. “By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my best for hours on end to give [Lo] the impression of ‘going places,’ of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight.” Humbert uses the road like an anesthetic, quelling Lo’s pained struggles for attention, succor, and later on, flight. He channels the trip’s many sights into a distracting and dissociative mirage, “the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.”

In other words, I know to be cautious, to be wary of the landscape and its apparent innocence and sublimity. And yet when I’m out here, driving, the sky and the grass and that distant line of hills can sometimes amalgamate in a way that chases gasps of wonder out of me. I pull over whenever this happens, genuinely concerned I might crash. I scribble something in my journal about Marilynne Robinson and watch the clouds travel through the lower atmosphere. If I’m lucky, their bubbly tops will intercede between me and the sun, chiseling the light into lambent shafts called “crepuscular rays” that I, in my atheist irony, like to think of as “god light.”

Here in the geographic center of the country, I start to wish for the first time that I had brought along a copilot, a friend or family member even, someone to witness my newfound infatuation with the corn.

 

LOCUST STREET, KANSAS
On those rare occasions when Nabokov traveled to give lectures and Vera stayed at home, she was his favorite correspondent. To her, he wrote passionate, confiding letters that spared no detail of his days. Often, he’d enclose with each letter a freshly caught butterfly, its body stashed in a waxy, glassine envelope. These gossamer-winged dispatches were accompanied by pointillist accounts of all the characters he encountered while lecturing on Pushkin in Valdosta, Georgia, or Lawrence, Kansas.

In other words, I know to be cautious, to be wary of the landscape and its apparent innocence and sublimity.

I too have been compiling, via Grindr, my own character sketches from the American hinter. In Odessa, Texas, weeks earlier, a local guy squired me around his former high school’s football stadium, where we later sat in the stands smoking but not touching. He pointed out to me where Mars was sitting in the sky, and we left it at that. By Denver, my liaisons had grown older and far less cagey. They’d catch on quickly when I started complaining about the yoga mat I’d been sleeping on for three days, letting me crash in their four-poster beds after a desultory sucking off. Sure, I’ve met my fair share of comically brusque let’s-never-mention-this-again types, guys whose only criteria is that you’re here right now and will likely be gone tomorrow, guys who are probably interesting but insist on acting dull. Such men make sex seem only marginally worth it, but nights on the road are predictably lonely, and what has often patched loneliness for me is skin, and banter, and all the secret handshakes we come up with in the dark.

Tonight, I’m hanging out with Tom from Nebraska at a house he’s trying to flip, drinking boxed wine and petting a Jack Russell Terrier named Sushi. When we get to the kissing part, Tom keeps on talking about the house and its foundations, how very grounded they are, how in another life, he would’ve loved to stay, but you know how it goes: student debt, car payments, a mortgage he can’t afford. Tom works at an alternative medicine center administering acupuncture and Reiki. He moved to Kansas City after an abortive two-year relationship with the Castro. I let him say various quasi-racial but still ultimately stimulating things to me (“I love how smooth you are”), and then Tom from Nebraska fucks me in a sweet and sleepy kind of way. Afterwards, he asks me what it is that I’m doing out here, and so I tell him that I’m on a quest for my great white Russo-American daddy. He laughs and says, “same.”

 

UNNAMED ROAD, NEBRASKA
Deep in the sandhills, a phalanx of dragonflies is emerging from a lake. Each new adult boasts chartreuse eyes and a lacquered, orange body. The swarm numbers in the thousands, buzzing in the grass all around me like clever robots born from still waters. There is something positively cyborgian about them, the metallic sheen of their carapaces, the precise articulation of all their jointed parts. Not unlike a car on the road, a dragonfly in motion is carbon fuel and hunger shoved into a chassis, except driver and vehicle are inseparable in this case, the radio’s static elaborated into a sibilant voice. That sound hangs over me this evening, a pleasant, enfolding thrum. A few individuals alight on my chest to dry their wings. When they are ready, they lift off my bare skin and start to rise, joining the lake’s vast exhalation of matter. For almost an hour, this interspecies catch and release keeps happening to me, and when it’s over, I’m lying there in the reeds reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and summer still reigns in America.

 

EAST RAINBOW AVENUE, WYOMING
I shouldn’t mince words when describing what I’ve been up to all summer. I’ve been driving around, catching butterflies, and murdering them for my collection. The fact that I am tapping an abundant and likely renewable resource scarcely betters my position. One can know, scientifically, that to claim an insect’s life hardly affects its species’ prospects, but an execution is still an execution, and killing a butterfly by hand can still feel like a ravaging, an intimate act of cruelty. I try to follow Nabokov in snuffing my butterflies the “Continental” way. I take each insect between two fingers and deliver a short, sharp pinch to its thorax. If I do this with speed and conviction, there is no mess of abdominal leakage, no excess shedding of scales from the wings. Even the most careful lepist soon learns, however, that to hold a thing of beauty is to watch it go still in your hands.

When I get to Laramie, I locate Matthew Shepard’s memorial bench on the local college campus. I sit there with his name at my back and gaze stupidly at my feet. Gnats buzz around the brim of a trashcan. Two lone clouds annotate an otherwise pristine sky. According to an article on the National Park Service’s website, “This quiet tribute to a single individual connects his story to the landscape, to his community, and to America’s queer cultural legacy.”

There are many reasons why someone would take a road trip, but one of the most familiar is the desire to deepen one’s connections to a place or region and the people who live there. Oftentimes, the place you’re driving towards is massively dispersed like America, what the cultural historian Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community.” Our country may be grounded in physical reality, but what ties places as disparate as Guam and Iowa together, and then us to those places, is inarguably also a concept, an abstraction many of us treat like a birthright. Spending hours on the road suspended within this confounding idea, mulling it over, pondering our America, is what the conventional road trip narrative is all about. Or that’s the idea, at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. I left on this trip with Nabokov as my lodestar but a reimagined America my not-so-secret aim. Though I’ve gone a respectable distance at this point, I still feel like I haven’t captured that ineffable Americanness just yet; or maybe I have and don’t want to admit it, for the country I’ve come to know on the road is not a lovely procession of geographic phrases fused into a mellifluous sentence, but rather a chaotic scrawl of ailing infrastructure, of speed traps and exit signs and long overdue roadwork. The highways and roadsides—a country that literally passes you by—are the only American (non) places I feel more connected to now than when I began. Each random town park or overgrown knoll I stopped at along the way feels less like a vestige of the “real” America than an anomaly, a quiet moment I managed to wrangle from the highway and its velocities.

Road trips might have once tied us to places, but these days, they seem better equipped for undoing those ties.

 

US ROUTE 287, WYOMING
I just drive and keep on driving. Saratoga, then Rawlins, then Lander. Outside Dubois, a forest fire has blocked the main route to Teton, so I make camp as I figure an alternate route. A bearded ex–traffic cop on a neighboring site comes over to ask for a cig and to tell me that the “hotshot wildland firefighters”—they are actually called this—will be here by morning to sort it all out.

Road trips might have once tied us to places, but these days, they seem better equipped for undoing those ties.

Outside the town grocer, a couple on a cross-country bike trip strikes up a conversation. The man wants to help me quit smoking. He shows me a picture on his phone of a baby. “That’s my great-grandnephew,” he says. “I wouldn’t have that if I hadn’t quit when I was twenty-three.” The woman nods sagely, then tells me, apropos my face, that her brother used to rent warehouses in the ’80s to a Chinese family in Oakland. The matriarch of that family died from cancer. Her widower didn’t know any English, and so the teenage son had to step in as the business’s de facto boss. “It was so sad, how hard that boy had to work, every morning until every night,” the woman tells me. I reciprocate her knowing nod.

 

GRAND LOOP ROAD, WYOMING
Almost a decade ago, my parents took us on one last family road trip. The tour included only two states, but they were the big square ones out west. We drove all the way from Boulder to Yellowstone, where we spent a frigid morning hunkered down in the rental car, passing a pair of binoculars back and forth so everyone could say they’d seen an elk. As usual, we only ate at Chinese restaurants along our route, dining in the company of other Asian families on similar trips (no party would acknowledge the others, but still, it was like we’d planned our itineraries together). I remember standing outside one Chinese restaurant in Wyoming, or maybe Montana, waiting for my parents to settle the bill as I tongued my way through a complimentary dum-dum. Cars in the street were slowing down and lowering their windows. After a while, it dawned on me that the pronghorns across the road were real, and that they were looking at me.

That was the America my parents generously put in motion for me, a space where our Chinese habits of mind and stomach could comfortably mix with Wild West vistas and fables of American gumption and derring-do. I realize now that I might have located a more coherent version of my America if I’d directed this trip down that same, rutted route. Rather than hewing to Nabokov’s singular path, I could’ve driven around in search of a communal Asian America. I could’ve signed up for food tours of every Koreatown and Little Tokyo on the West Coast, or spent a few weeks interviewing members of the Hmong diaspora in St. Paul. I could’ve made pilgrimages to sites of historical significance for East Asians like me: Angel Island, Promontory Point, UC Berkeley, where Asian American studies was born. The main reason I didn’t take that trip was because I thought I knew how it ended, with a gesture of homecoming, with the Asian American man learning how to call these lonely highways and stolen lands his own. This kind of ending rankles me for many reasons, none of which is easy to articulate. It’s not that I’m unmoved by all the American Dream’s ethnic pleats, but defining myself as a proud Asian American still feels like I’m invoking a simulacrum of this country, one that has been politically and emotionally useful for so many but which has also borne its fair share of internal contradictions and pains. This has been said before but should be said again: Asians in this country are not all alike; we too are imaginary citizens living in imagined community with one another. Some of us have been here longer than others, some of us have more access to Ivy League colleges, boba tea, and cultural capital. Many of us don’t know what it even means to be Asian or American, let alone both at the same time, and although insisting that an alternate Asian America exists is vital, it’s just as important to note that a box is still a box.

The road of my choosing dead ends at a T-junction outside of Yellowstone. To the east rises Heart Mountain, where thousands of Japanese Americans were once interned. To the west, a trio of pronghorns, grazing on a low hill. The beasts, escapees from memory, turn their white hindquarters to me: a slow and graceful mooning.

 

SOUTH FOURTH OF JULY CREEK ROAD, IDAHO
Karen Shimakawa writes in National Abjection that Asian Americans have always existed as a “frontier” and a “limit case” to American identity. For Shimakawa, this is what makes Asian Americans who we are, this vexed state of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. We are the model minorities who somehow never fully made it to shore; the upstanding business owners and academics whose loyalty still can’t pass muster; the bougiest ethnic food group, but also the exotic delicacy stuck in America’s craw. Pig feet, frog legs, curry—who eats this kind of shit?

I want to know how we get past this impasse of alienation and belonging, or if such a stable, unchanging relationship to America is really the end game we’re after. In his “Expeditionary Series,” Tseng Kwong Chi goes from urban sightseer to frontier explorer in the space of a frame. We see him bending at the waist in a Tennessee cottonfield, or shrunk to lilliputian proportions by Monument Valley. These images evoke the tradition of American landscape photography without conforming to its mold. They possess the grandiose scale and formal austerity you expect but stop short of portraying the land as blank and unpeopled, as if the camera and its operator weren’t even there. Chi, the queer in the Mao suit, is always there: a yellow man mucking about in the white man’s dream of an endless, western Arcadia. My favorite shot shows him standing inside an empty field in North Dakota, a jag of lightning on the horizon and a halo of ozone about his head. Silver light beams from his sunglasses. He has landed in this Ansel Adams–-approved scene like some ambassador of the strange, scrambling our lines of sight so that all claims to belonging seem fleeting, violent, or both. A laminated badge is clipped to his jacket. Sometimes it reads “Slut for Art” and sometimes it reads “Visitor.”

 

NORTH HAMMA HAMMA ROAD, WASHINGTON
My prolonged visit to Nabokov’s America is nearing its close. After nearly ten thousand miles, I’m tired not of driving but of doing it alone. I’ve gotten a bit too caught up in the majesty of it all, what Nabokov refers to as the “inutile loveliness” of the land. Friends in Seattle and Portland invite me to stay for a while, so I do. We sit in the leafy backyards of their rented homes, ashing into seashells and dodging shrapnel from the squirrel wars raging above. We go out dancing each night and spend the next day hungover in some riverside park where there’s blue water to swim through and lazy talk of politics by every grill.

Nabokov rarely took to any soapbox if he could help it. He would share his strong opinions about writing, other authors, and even lepidoptery with anyone who would listen, but politics—how large groups of people got on with one another—was not one of his favorite topics. In Nabokov’s exquisitely tuned prose, issues of historical or social import tend to get lost in what Humbert Humbert might call a “vapory accumulation of sounds.” This was part of the point for Nabokov. He wrote in service of an aesthetic experience that elevated life above the profane, that exuded this aura of the everlasting, and that could never be reduced to an argument one might lob at a public debate. The author-figure, for Nabokov, was first and foremost an individualist, an artist engrossed in the tracing of his own personal “match themes.” Even if events of a political nature had played a decisive role in making the artist who he was, the language of politics was ink for inferior pens. Such language was at once too broad and too partisan, too populous with winged clichés. I may never stop holding my own little torch to Nabokov’s notion of art for art’s sake, but I also don’t want to give up the idea of my membership in a collective, or to pin myself, insect-like, to the coattails of just one story.

It is in the biography of his most famous character, though, that I find clues to how most of us, good or evil, seem to live our lives.

All summer, I’ve been riding his colored spiral, collecting butterflies in all the places he left on his labels, trying to figure out which “match themes” are his and which are mine. I’ve taken these thoughts to the high desert and the plains, the Gunnison Range and the Hood Canal. I’ve tried to keep my rhythms simple: each dawn, a cigarette, each dusk, the same. I like sitting there with no task yet, no book and no net, just watching the sun extend or retract its ligatures of light.

All summer, I’ve also listened for the coyotes that yip across the tracks, seen the worker bees organizing by the apiary, let all the harvestmen and potato beetles come tippling to my rainfly at night. I’ve kept pitching my little houses by the road—a stake in all four corners, a bundle of firewood as ballast, the best foundations I can make. I always set my tent down as close as I can to the sound of running water. It cuts beneath you, washing up through the floorboards of your dreams, a sound like letting go.

 

PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY, CALIFORNIA
When I finally get to the Pacific, I decide to spring for an Airbnb hosted by a young couple from China. Their little wooden house in Crescent City looks nothing like the brick McMansion I grew up in, but it has the same smell, all that ginger and charred rice, and the same basic condiments in the pantry. After I drive away, the couple is kind enough to leave me a review: “Dai is a very sonny boy, he himself is driving along the coast of Pacific Ocean, this is a lang road. He must be get success on his way of live.”

For the time being, I guess I’ll stay my course. The ocean turns over slowly in its basin. Everything on this dark road races through an intangible medium—my headlights, those stars, his words haunting every turn. I’m getting off the colored spiral now, the rotary, the traffic circle, whatever you want to call it. I’ve brought back no souvenirs but these butterflies, the ones drying on my dash. Now that I have them sorted into their little envelopes, I want to send one to everyone I love, each a distinct postcard from my own invented America.

At the close of Lolita, Humbert wonders about “the secret of durable pigments,” a detail that Nabokov leaves unexplained. My guess is that he is alluding here to the structural colors of certain butterflies, those blue, green, purple, or iridescent colors that are produced by a wing’s nanostructures and how they scatter or bend light rather than indicating the presence of any pigment. Because the chitinous shape of a butterfly’s wing scales is much hardier than any decayable, chemical hue, structural colors do not fade in the same way that pigments do. If properly preserved, butterflies blessed with such immutable colors can dazzle for years after their death. That was the goal for Nabokov: a hue that wouldn’t run, a pattern incommensurate with any other. By most measures, he achieved what he set out to do. How else could I have followed him all this way, or spent all these hours emulating the swish of his net? How else but a legacy, and one more durable than most?

It is in the biography of his most famous character, though, that I find clues to how most of us, good or evil, seem to live our lives. Humbert Humbert’s path yields no final, summative epiphany or even an appropriate punishment for his crimes. Instead, it ends with our antihero driving on the wrong side of the road somewhere in Colorado. He has no more options, no more places to go. All the dead ends foreshadowed by his choices are converging to meet him, but with them comes this curious, enervating calm.

“Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side.”

__________________________________

New England Review

This essay was published in the New England Review, issue 42.2, under the title “Driving Days.”

Thomas Dai
Thomas Dai
Thomas Dai is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University. Aside from his academic work, he is currently working on a collection of linked essays about travel, queerness, and the many ways that geography and identity intersect. Some of his recent writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, CityLab, Literary Hub, and elsewhere.





More Story
In Memory of My Parents, the Late Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha Most of my father’s drafts of work-in-progress were salvaged by my mother behind his back, because he was strictly against...