Fixer Chao by Han Ong

by Jun Kim


Poetic Justice

Feng Shui — for those of you who aren’t beholden to the latest fabulous trends and fashions (and God bless you if you aren’t) — is the so-called ancient Chinese art of arranging one’s environment to promote peace and prosperity. Its popularity has reached such a crescendo among the well-to-do in this country that the major bookstore chains have given this micro-specific subject its own self-contained section instead of subsectioning it under Home or Architecture. This, and the fact that you can’t even find a branch store outside of more affluent districts (‘cause, you know, plebeians don’t read), speak volumes about how certain kinds of knowledge, including quasi-knowledge, are appropriated and consumed by different social classes. This is what makes Fixer Chao, the wickedly clever debut novel from New York-based playwright Han Ong, so timely and worthwhile.

William Paulinha, a second-generation Filipino-American, is a former street hustler who drudges through various underpaid jobs as a typist, blowing his dough by drowning his discontent at a seedy dive called the Savoy. His life does a pirouette when Shem C., an Jewish writer with a royal axe to grind, walks into said bar and into his life. Bitter that his talents have not been rewarded with fame and fortune, Shem seeks revenge on the exclusive inner circle of Manhattan’s elite for spitting him out after nearly receiving him as one of their own. On the assumption that William must be a man of desperate circumstances — else why would he be in a dump like the Savoy? — Shem accosts him with a proposal to wreak havoc in the lives of the complacent rich by duping, robbing, and ultimately humiliating them. What’s in it for William? Money, and a ticket out of his unenviable station in life. As Shem flatly states it, “I have it and you need it.”

cover art

Fixer Chao

Han Ong

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Shem’s plan is to capitalize on the current infatuation with Feng Shui by running a scam operation in which William would be misrepresented as one Master Chao, a bona fide Hong Kong-born Feng Shui master. Under Shem’s guidance, the clueless William extracts from a book just the level that he needs to know to pass as the real McCoy. What he lacks in knowledge, he makes up for in a performance that satisfies all the prerequisites that underlie people’s conceptions of cultural “authenticity.” This provides Ong with a perfect setup to burn — in a manner that’s by turns scathingly funny and sober with resentment — upper-crust society to a sweet crisp.

While this all plays out well enough, one is left with some lingering questions that are not satisfactorily addressed or even addressed at all. For instance, a crucial factor in Shem’s plan is to deliberately misarrange some part of the clients’ homes, which, according to the tenets of Feng Shui, would invite harm and misfortune, “like planting a secret, ticking time bomb.” Should the mystical hocus-pocus turn out to work, the results would be but icing on the cake. Yet in order for the plot to get where it needs to, William develops a sizable clientele due to the rave reviews from his former clients, who swear by the benefits that they’ve reaped from his touch. Only after the plot has reached a certain point do the ticking bombs inexplicably go off for some but not for others. Moreover, the motivations behind William’s actions are often opaque.

Although this is essentially a tale of class revenge, it is also one of racial revenge, but Ong cleverly subsumes the latter element under the tapestry of the former. This is underlined by the fact that while William is the avenging angel, Shem — whose agenda is based on class only — is God, predetermining and controlling everything. Depending on your inclinations, this can be either a vice or a virtue of the book. A virtue because class, though it may yet be our greatest divider, is nevertheless a less flammable topic than race in this country, and Ong’s decision to underplay the latter makes the novel palatable to those who might otherwise pass it over. A vice because this is, arguably, a waste of an opportunity to effectively exploit the explosive combination of a race and class that have both been marginalized (the cream of New York socialites are, after all, a homogenized, pasteurized white). Judging from his unflattering treatment of two of his characters who are preoccupied with race, Ong apparently disfavors the kind of exhortatory race rhetoric practiced by certain critics and thinkers. But the anger is there, evident in sporadic moments when he raises the issue of William’s racial disaffection, only to promptly drop it as if trying not to sour the mood of a lively party.

Of the writing itself, there’s no question Ong is talented. Lyrical yet decidedly unsentimental, his prose ably traverses the space between mellifluousness and convolutedness, between judiciousness and unbridled biliousness. And if we occasionally encounter an awkward descriptive passage (“They all had healthy, bouncing helmets of black hair — all that hair had suggested an animal, a dog say, each face and body beneath it a knobby leg”), they are far outnumbered by remarkably observed tidbits like the following in which William theorizes why Feng Shui is so sought after by high society:

Every day the papers were trumpeting a Greatest Cinematic Achievement in Ages! It only increased your anxiety knowing you were missing out on so much. So many great books to read, great bargains to be had, vacation spots to be visited. Enjoyment was turning into a virtual task. And a lifetime was becoming shorter and shorter. Was there any surprise that they’d be clamoring for the next hot commodity if that commodity happened to be peace of mind, tranquillity, silence?

Happily, they get more than they bargained for in this acerbic, ambitious first novel by a welcome new voice in contemporary fiction.

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