Archive for the ‘Novel of Place’ Category

Tash Aw (2005) – The Harmony Silk Factory

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

The Harmony Silk Factory (Amazon image)

This ought to be an interesting book: a kind of Rashomon redux.  Three views of the same man, a Malaysian Chinese businessman and Communist organizer named Johnny Lim, by three narrators, his son, Jasper; his wife, Snow Soong; and his friend(?), Peter Wormwood(!).  But the narration scheme fails to deliver what it promises.  On the one hand, the author purports to show the reader Johnny Lim from these three distinct, and arguably equally valid standpoints; but the narration attributed to his son, Jasper, reveals things that Jasper could not know, could not have learned, and probably would not have presumed to invent about what went on in Johnny’s mind.  At least in Rashomon the characters told what they saw and did (or what they thought or would like to think they saw and did).  Here, the three narrations feel unreliable because the author doesn’t obey the conventions of his own device. 

The story also suffers from inexplicable and thus unbelievable plot devices.  What would ever possess anyone to characterize a trip to undeveloped, uninhabited islands in the Straights of Malacca as a honeymoon?  What would possess the bride’s father to suggest such a trip?  And what would possess a man to set out with his wife on such a honeymoon in the company of three other men: Peter, another Englishman (surnamed Honey), and a Japanese, Kunichika (whom we already know from Jasper’s narrative will be the evil Japanese master of occupied Malaysia)? 

The least believable—and perhaps the other side of the same coin—the least comprehensible of the three narrators is Peter Wormwood, who comes across as an effete, misfit British expatriate.  His narrative asserts that he was in love (and he certainly was besotted) with Snow, but the sexual proclivities he acts on lead to commercial sex with a transvestite. 

Peter’s obsession with gardens and the importation or not of foreign plant species is of minor didactic interest, but hardly compelling.  Presumably the author wanted to freight the issue with symbolic overtones of cultural imperialism and subsequent adoption of aspects of colonial culture into the post-colonial state, but I wasn’t engaged and I tried to fast-forward over those parts.

The novel is fraught with a skittish avoidance of sex.  The eponymous Harmony Silk Factory run by Johnny Lim is said to include brothel services, but aside from providing Johnny’s son’s with one more reason to despise his father, nothing is made of the fact.  Peter reports, with neither enthusiasm nor regret, having (clearly sexual) encounters with a Master at the school he attended, and he reports a brief episode in which he engages the services of a local transvestite prostitute for an unsatisfying quickie.  Kunichika attempts to rape Snow—it seems a tad odd that she resists him because she has apparently decided to leave Johnny for him.  Peter’s subsequent I-don’t-know-how-to-characterize-it bout with Snow seems to have been Snow’s one and only experience of sexual intercourse, although Snow’s narrative is unclear about what did or didn’t actually transpire.  Is Peter’s version of what happened after he “saved” Snow from Kunichika the feverish concoction of a mind only tenuously in touch with reality?  Weird. 

Peter’s character seems stereotypically homosexual, as does Johnny in both Snow’s and Peter’s narrative.  Johnny and Peter seem smitten with one another, but they never seem to act or have acted upon the feeling.  (Is there some idealistic appeal here to the sanctifying properties of Platonic love?)  The idea that Peter falls in love with Snow—that he could even consider falling in love with Snow—borders on ludicrous.  At best, he seems to be in love with the idea of being in love with Snow.  His physical description of Snow, daughter of the richest man in the Kinta valley and reportedly the most beautiful woman there, makes her seem androgynous like a male transvestite (she is tall, solidly built, without much feminine shape), so at least Peter is minimally consistent in his preferences.

There is lots of local color, but the setting doesn’t thrust itself forward to become a character in its own right as it does in The Hamilton Case.  Even so, the English come off worse in this novel than they do in The Hamilton Case., in which there is some admiration for the legal system and the courts the English brought to Sri Lanka.  In The Harmony Silk Factory, The English tin barons (not to be confused with tin soldiers) are so thoroughly incompetent that when their mining machinery breaks down, they don’t believe it’s really broken and simply blame the workers.  There’s no sense of a functioning government or administrative system.  Everything feels like a jungle outpost. 

These two views, I suppose, are the British colonies’ equivalent of the two views of the Spanish in Latin America: the leyenda blanca (the white legend) that holds that whatever else the Spanish did, they introduced some reasonable governmental and administrative institutions, and the leyenda negra (the black legend) that holds that the Spanish sullied everything they touched, and bequeathed nothing of value.

In the end, there’s not much to say about the story, because in spite of the novel’s 377 pages, there isn’t much of a story.  As a character study, it’s hard to believe in any of the characters at all.  They strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but they are oh so easy to forget.  Except, maybe, poor, benighted Snow.  But, for all that I felt annoyed at the end, I was glad to have read the book.  It failed, but it failed with chutzpah!

On Literature, Baba Segi, and Major Pettigrew

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010


Book group leader Jacqueline sent me the tail end of an email exchange she was having with another book group member about Jonathan Franzen’s recent book Freedom.  Jacqueline was less than enthusiastic.  I had heard the buzz about Freedom but I didn’t know anything about it.  Still don’t.  I looked at David Brooks’ 20 Sep 2010 op-ed piece and, setting aside whether anything he said about the book is accurate (which, I took from Jacqueline’s reaction and his adduced support of B. R. Meyers’ October 2010 Atlantic article, it is), I find myself in agreement that an important, larger issue is whether institutionalized pessimism is now a sine qua non of literary lionization.  Too often, it seems, if it ain’t empty or depressing, it ain’t literature.  Tolstoy’s oft-cited declaration that “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is rhetorically satisfying, but one must not confuse rhetorical felicity with truth.

Even if Tolstoy were right, is Schadenfreude really the best and highest purpose of art and literature?  Is the purpose of literature to encourage the reader in the attitude of Luke’s (18:11) Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like the unhappy family in Anna Karenina or the disaffected characters in Freedom?  I think not.  Art at its best allows us to glimpse, through the eyes of the artist, that which is good in human nature—in ourselves and in others.  Not that authors should aspire to be Pollyannas or Panglosses.  On the contrary.  Sometimes a gem is best appreciated in its contrast to a bleak, black background.

I think, for example, of the two noir-ish mystery series I have recently read–Sieg Larsson’s The Girl with / who … trilogy and John Burdett’s Bangkok books.  Both propose a world that is corrupt and threatening, yes; but they offer the serious consolation that there can be–no, there are–good people to be found; that decency exists; that friendship (and even love) are safe havens that we can and must fight to protect and expand.  This is more than a formulaic Misery with a Happy Ending plot.

Notice that Hollywood is of two minds on this issue.  Sometimes a film is re-shot or re-cut when audience reactions in preview showings suggest that a bleak and hopeless ending may encourage audiences to stay away in droves.  When this happens, there is often juicy byplay about how soulless Hollywood moguls are destroying the artistic integrity of the director.  But tacking an upbeat ending onto an essentially downer plot is a desperation move, not a serious response when the question the rest of the work poses is “Why go on living at all?”

Tragedy as a form seems to work (when it succeeds) because the audience understands the wrong-headedness of the hero and understands that although it is unavoidable for the hero, it is not unavoidable for everyone. So, there is a difference between hopelessness, anomie, and disaffection on the one hand and tragedy on the other.   In essence, tragedy is didactic.  The audience is brought to learn or recognize something positive. 

Traditionally, an artist suffers for his art, but I wonder if that is not just an excuse for artists who want their art to make us suffer as they have or imagine they have.  (Take that, you coddled reader, you!)  A generation of authors acquired the sobriquet “Angry Young Men” (not that it doesn’t occur with women) and took it as a badge of honor, but I was never convinced that anger for the sake of anger is salutary for the artist or the reader.  Sometimes it just makes me tired.

I have just finished two books that satisfied in the way I have proposed: Lola Shoneyin’s (2010) The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Helen Simonson’s (2010) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.  Neither insists on the purposelessness of existence, the impossibility of integrity, or the frustrations of inchoate morality; yet neither is blind to the vicissitudes of daily life–the one in a polygamous Nigerian family, the other in an uptight English Major (retired) living is a small town in Sussex.  Both deal intelligently with social issues both large and small; both recognize that not everyone is a Good Guy, but they find enough wiggle room in individual interactions to enable some good things to be realized.

Shoneyin’s book is a bit more sociological in its approach–or perhaps it feels that way because I was totally ignorant of even the most general facts of Nigerian society.  The author provides enough context for one to infer the forces and pressures of life in Ibadan and thus understand the motivations of her characters; but the exposition never feels forced or condescending.  I suppose the same is true of Simonson’s book, too.  The mores of rural England are taken for granted and addressed in the text only as they interact with the characters.  If I were unfamiliar with English village life, I think I would still be able to understand and appreciate the story Simonson tells. 

Henry James asked, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? “  He was writing of the human (or anthropomorphic) actors in a tale, but in both Baba Segi and Major Pettigrew the prevailing mores are characters in their own right: the character of the society determining the incidents of the plot; and the incidents of the plot illustrating the character of the society.