With the publication of his third novel, Tash Aw’s celebrity status is now assured. But do the books equal the hype?
A Malaysian-Chinese born in Taiwan, raised in Kuala Lumpur, who studied, then practiced, law in the UK before tossing that to take creative writing courses at the University of East Anglia, and blessed with the bonus of being young and physically attractive, writer Tash Aw (born Aw Ta-shi) seems tailor-made to be the next post-colonial darling of the bubbling pudding of London’s literary industry.
Such writers also require agents to get them published. Aw’s agent is the powerhouse David Gordon, who helped propel his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory of 2005, onto the global stage. It received the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and South Pacific region) and even made it on the long-list of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Now, with his recently published third novel, Five Star Billionaire garnering rave reviews, Aw’s international celebrity is secured.
Amidst all the cheerleading, however, doubts are being quietly raised by a few readers and critics. In secret late night meetings, far from the prying ears of powerhouse literary agents, they gather to wonder, Could there be less to Aw’s fiction than we’re being told to believe?
Set in mid-20th century British Malaya, The Harmony Silk Factory tells the story of a charming womanizer and con-man named Johnny Lim from the perspective of three people closest to him: his son, his wife, and his best friend. Johnny himself only appears through the lens of their memory, and it is their stories that construct and shape his character in the mind of the reader.
Aw’s book was an answer, in many ways, to Anthony Burgess’s magisterial The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy (1956-59). According to the promotional material, his novel presented Malaya as imagined by a Malaysian, a riposte to the end-of-Empire comedy of Burgess’s characters, both British and local. Aw’s characters supposedly carried a weight of legitimacy that Burgess, a white interloper, would not be able to muster. Yet the main character remains completely absent by design, so that readers are left with descriptions without an objective correlative. Instead, Aw offers sensual descriptions of British Malaya. A random selection:
Aw peppers his book with such detailed descriptions that, on first reading, give the novel the mellow spice of sepia-toned historical fiction. On rereading, however, something same strange happens. The spell wears off and they start to seem more like part of a set design for a period drama of the Merchant Ivory variety. There is a musty whiff to the novel; it’s rather like flipping through a dusty photo album with an imaginative friend.
Aw masked this aroma with a shiny veneer of magic realism and dexterous deployment of stream of consciousness writing. The dazzle was indeed impressive:
when first reading it, I was put in mind of the section of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (1951), which is told from the point of view of the character Peyton as she is on her way to commit suicide.
Styron’s masterful use of the tricky stream of consciousness technique is not only well executed but adds a dimension to his novel that more traditional narrative strategies will not: it allows readers to understand, if not experience, Peyton’s unhappiness by riding on the river of her thoughts as she spirals to her self-inflicted death. With Aw, the question is whether the technique, especially in the sections of the journal of Johnny’s wife Snow, is being deployed for purposes other than to let the reader into the most intimate stream of his character’s thoughts. Perhaps the stylish trickery is being employed as means of obfuscation.
As Alfred Hickling pointed out in his review in The Guardian, “Bound in Tropes of Silk” (26 March 2005), Aw’s virtuoso verbiage often becomes a means of distracting the reader from the fact that the characters were more archetypes than people, the story more philosophical position than rounded narrative. “The dazzling haze of the construction seems ultimately designed to deflect attention from the fact that it frequently demands patient re-reading without really deserving it.” Perhaps the absence at the core of the narrative was less one of symbolic significance than it was mere emptiness.
The writing was so smooth and silky, the historical details so charming, the magic so real, this emptiness slipped past on a first reading. It yawns wide on a second. If you unpick silk, what are you left with?
Despite such misgivings, the novel thrust Aw into the limelight. When his next book appeared, he was touted in press releases as “one of the most exciting young voices on the international stage.”
Unfortunately, his sophomore effort was a letdown. Map of the Invisible World (2009) felt rushed and unfinished, a series of possibilities that never fully materialized into a completed narrative.
Set primarily in Indonesia during the deadly year of 1965, it tells the story of two orphan brothers, Adam and Johan, who are separated as children. Johan is taken away by a wealthy couple to Malaysia. Adam is adopted by a European artist named Karl and stays in Indonesia. Things go badly for him. An American woman named Margaret living in Jakarta has something to do with Karl and after Adam finds her, the two head out on (as the jacket blurb indicates) “a tragic journey of discovery.” Meanwhile, Johan glumly parties in Kuala Lumpur and feels vaguely guilty about his brother.
Characters and storylines emerge as potentials that fan outward and occasionally intersect but never resolve. The absence at the center of the first novel—the missing character who only exists in the narrative of others—is here inverted into the entire world, or at least the world of the Malay Archipelago of 1965. That imaginary world exists only in the narratives of characters that appear either as incomplete sketches (Karl), ciphers (Johan), symbols (Adam), or foreigners (Margaret).
Why the setting? As a Malaysian writer it is understandable why Aw would want to take on Burgess’s trilogy, but here the precedent is Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), set mostly in Jakarta, and based on Koch’s journalist brother’s real life experiences during the political madness of the time. That novel’s compactness is what creates its sparkle and depth, like a diamond. Without that compactness, Aw’s sprawling narrative runs smack into an unintentional irony in the title. His world is invisible because it doesn’t exist. The map leads one nowhere.
The critical consensus was that the flaw was not in Aw’s writing but in his conception for the story. Individual scenes and set pieces are often memorable and written with the same bravo flare as he demonstrated in his first book. But where in Harmony Silk Factory he could mine his own experience to construct a portrait of long-lost Malaya, in his second book, he had no personal experience to build with. The result is a fantasia, a confection, rendered all the more egregious for being about so potent a topic. As the recent controversial film The Act of Killing demonstrates, there is nothing invisible about the atrocities of 1965.
The reviews were mixed. The London literary establishment held its nose: the novel was not shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
What went wrong? Perhaps without the flying buttresses of the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, Aw’s prose could not soar? A more cynical doubt emerged: perhaps the genius of the first novel was more the result of his editor’s efforts than his own? Did some unknown editor fabricate the shimmer of The Harmony Silk Factory?
His third novel debuted last year, was examined, and the jury concluded that the author was back in form. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. So the industry blessed the enterprise. What about the book itself?
Five Star Billionaire nominally takes place in modern Shanghai but it closely resembles Aw’s previous searches for lost time, and it shares many of their failures.
China’s “rise” is itself a major story of our time and investigating the “new” China has become an almost required exercise for Chinese diaspora writers and filmmakers, and Aw (or his agent and editors) is smart to tap this vein.
But the Shanghai setting is a red herring. A large portion of the book is given to flashbacks to Malaysia in the ‘80s, which puts Aw on the familiar ground of his own youth. These scenes are the most convincing, for they draw on his deepest well of experience.
The Shanghai scenes and characters, by contrast, are shallow (mostly descriptions of landscapes glimpsed, tellingly, from hotel rooms or highways). For that matter, the most sympathetic scenes in the Malaysia flashbacks involve characters that are closest to himself: affluent Malaysian-Chinese who own trendy cafes, listen to Tom Waits, and can afford to study poetry at universities in London.
Here’s the gist: Five characters, all Malaysian-Chinese, wind up in Shanghai at the same time. In descending financial order we have a pretentious self-made billionaire who is possibly not what he claims; the millionaire scion of an old money family, soon to be ruined; a successful but lonely business woman from an affluent background; a successful yet self-destructive pop star from a poor background; a small town girl with moxy drifting and looking for work.
Two of them will find love together. The rest fade out. As in all of Aw’s novels, these characters’ lives mix and mingle in past and future and it is from the revelation of hidden connections that insight into the human condition is supposed to emerge.