[6 June 2014]
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.
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.
William L. Gibson’s novel Singapore Black, the first in a trilogy of hard-boiled crime fiction set in 1890s Malaya, is now available from Monsoon Books. He is Academic Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at SAE Institute, Jakarta. Learn more at www.williamlgibson.com.