The philosophy that underlines this approach is known as Tychism, developed by Charles Sanders Pierce in the late 19th century and named for the Greek god of chance, Tyche. In a nutshell, Pierce’s philosophy is relevant here in that he argued that random chance is the primary operator in the cosmos and that humans create meaning from experience by interpreting chance events as an ordered narrative.Narratives that rely on Tychism create an illusion of order by creating an artificial world in which intertwining relationships create an overarching linkage of cause and effect that gives meaning to actions that would seem otherwise random.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel (2006) is a case in point. Despite great differences in geography and economic class, the film suggests that we are all potentially connected to each other by chance events that shape our lives. In one line of chance events in the film, a Japanese businessman on a hunting holiday in Africa gives a rifle as present to his Moroccan guide whose son later accidently shoots an American tourist with it. Each of these people is a character in the film.
In Five Star Billionaire, chance is meant to act in a similar fashion, a way of linking five seemingly incongruous people together in Shanghai. Unfortunately the artificer’s hand is all too obvious and the illusion of order is spoiled. As in Map of the Invisible World, the linking of chance events is often too convenient, too obviously a contrivance, to be convincing. But this is only the beginning of the book’s problems.
Most annoying, there is a moral tone more suited to a fairy tale than an exploration of a modern Asian megacity. For example, late in the novel we are told that the character of Phoebe (the small town girl) worked as a “karaoke hostess”, which usually involves prostitution of varying shades, from hand-jobs to full-blown intercourse. Surely these experiences are an important aspect of the character and also offer insight into the real life migrant sex workers upon which she is based?
Nothing doing. Aw plays it coy and offers zero description of her time as a hostess: “(Phoebe’s first job was among those listed above, but she would rather not say which one.)” That’s all he has to say about it (and in parenthesis, no less).
This strain of Victorian moralism infuses the entire novel. Gary, the pop star, enjoys online porn. We are told: “He began to spend too much time on the Internet, on websites he shouldn’t have been looking at.”
Who says he shouldn’t be looking at pornography? Chinese censors? No, it’s the narrator.
This aversion to the gritty facts of urban life leaves precious little room for the analysis the book promises. All too often, it becomes lofty when it needs to get dirty.
Press photo from Tash Aw.com
By staying clean, the narrative merely skims across the surface, creating an imitation of depth by accumulation of detail. For example, the chapter titles, such as “How to Invest Wisely”, are reminiscent of titles from self-help books popular in modern China. This is a cute touch. But the same titles have also been printed in simplified Chinese characters beneath the English words. Why? I suspect to add a dash of verisimilitude, yet the opposite effect takes place: this is old-fashioned chinoiserie, like the red pagodas printed on take-out boxes.
Despite the book’s title, when it comes to money, Aw isn’t really interested in the peccadilloes of the modern world. Here is the description of when a character finds out that his multi-generation family business has been wiped out:
The family insurance business had collapsed. It had not withstood the global crisis. The biggest, oldest insurance firm in Southeast Asia, founded by his grandfather, was no longer. Now an investor was offering them one dollar to buy the entire company, which just a year ago was worth billions. It was humiliating. They were facing ruin.
An author like Tom Wolfe would have written a doorstop thick novel about this single moment, giving us a nuanced understanding of the complex financial landscape that allows such dramatic tectonic shifts to occur. A writer like Wolfe would use fiction to investigate how “all that is solid melts into air” (as Marx put it), how the destructive impulses at the foundation of capitalist endeavors affect and afflict the very people who start them.
Aw gives us a half-paragraph and lets it go at that. The impression is that the author has no interest in how a billion dollar company can go busto overnight. I mean, they do, right? Like Lehman Brothers, right? Just accept it… his characters do.
Or is Aw simply getting lazy? There are many cringe-worthy moments that truly try the reader’s patience, the most egregious of which must be this: “This is what life was like in China, he thought: Stand still for a moment and the river of life rushes past you.”
Such an empty platitude harnessed to a hackneyed metaphor would be embarrassing in an undergraduate poem. In a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it’s downright painful. The cliché observation is also in no way unique to China.
The outcome of all this obliqueness is that of floating in a world unpinned from reality. To wit, the pop singer Gary, a Malaysian national, is in China for a concert tour. This would mean he would be given a temporary work visa, issued to the tour promotion company, which would expire when the tour ended. However, his tour is cancelled at short notice after a video of his drunken bar brawl goes viral (an unconvincing plot twist considering the incredible cost of mounting a multi-city concert tour).
In the real world, if the tour were canceled, Gary’s temporary work visa would be immediately revoked and he would have to leave the country. In Aw’s world, Gary lingers in China indefinitely for some reason.
He somehow manages to rent an apartment, in which he broods while surfing the web. He meets Phoebe, the small town girl, in an online dating site (because…hey, Tychism!) but in the end he doesn’t get her because she didn’t believe he was really the popstar Gary, of whom she is a fan. Unhappy face emoticon.
His agent books him small gigs at low-rent shopping malls (without an employment visa?). His ego bruised, he starts writing reinterpretations of the traditional Chinese songs his mother used to sing in Malaysia, performing them in cafes (again, without a work visa?). In the closing chapter he is a big star again, purified because he’s now a folk singer, you know, he’s ‘genuine’, not mainstream.
We realize that we’re not in modern China: we’re in the soft land of literary aesthetes. Shanghai is there for window-dressing, a poorly painted stage on which the author will bring together two star-crossed affluent middle-aged Malaysian-Chinese lovers. The story could have been set in Kuala Lumpur. When it comes to modern life, Five Star Billionaire really has nothing to say at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Also published last year was Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Set amongst Singapore’s jet set, it tackles similar themes and characters and settings as Five Star Billionaire but in a different mode. Kwan’s book is a satire of manners and mores, and like all successful satire, Kwan’s story reveals the subject through laughter rather than melodrama.
Not shy about the real world, Kwan loads his book with local curse words (and footnotes them) and is not afraid to describe blow jobs by Eurasian hookers as well as the odd social entanglements of the Singaporean upper crust. For painting pretty word pictures, Kwan is as good a writer as Aw, but his characters come alive with verve and bite that Aw’s melodrama is unable to match.
Given the poetic gloss and ponderous approach to his subjects, Aw’s books are marketed as quality literature. Because it is fun and playful, Kwan’s novel is marketed as a trashy beach read (with jacket blurbs by both Anna Wintour and Jackie Collins). Kwan’s book was not nominated for a Booker, but if you want to peek into the world of wealthy Southeast Asian-Chinese elites, if you want to understand what drives these people who control the economy of a major cross-roads of the world, Kwan’s book is the one to beat.
Yellow Brick Road
The most pregnant moments in Aw’s three novels are those in which his characters and descriptions are distilled from his own memories and experiences of Malaysia. He has said that he travels back to Asia annually to sort of recharge his batteries and, you know, stay in touch with the people, but this statement reveals more than he intends. He has become a tourist of his own heritage, a voyeur of his own culture, a raider of his own armoire. This is reflected in his books, which increasingly seem like a popular Victorian genre redux: fairy tales set in an Eastern land, strange and charming, but ultimately vacuous.
Explaining why he does not live in Malaysia even though his books are set there, Aw told Time Out Kuala Lumpur“The Time Out Interview: Tash Aw” (16 April 2013) that he needs to stay in London to be near his agent and publisher. There is in Malaysia, he claims, little hope for a literary career because of the distractions of family. He says, “Part of my life is about creating the time so I can write a big novel.”
When an author refers to his own work as “big”, it indicates that he believes the hyperbole that the industry has been using to promote his work. This is a dangerous delusion for a writer of supposedly serious fiction.
In the end, Aw’s books are readable and each has flashes of brilliance in construction of characters and descriptive set pieces (he probably should stick to short stories and not “big” narratives). Only time will tell if they can bear the weight of importance with which the London literary establishment has loaded them. In the meantime, when the next novel appears, expect lots more hype followed by hot air. The Booker, alas, will probably remain elusive.
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