Eileen Chang‘s biography may prove to be more interesting than any novel she produced during her prolific career, and that might be one of the problems with her semi-autobiographical novel, Little Reunions. Another could be the overflow of characters and situations that seem to be presented with no purpose in Little Reunions but to place yet another snapshot within our view. Take the seven pages of characters presented as a sort of appendix. What might be the story of Julie and her attraction to the dangerous Chih-Yung quickly becomes a cluttered assortment of characters named Eldest Uncle, Eldest Aunt, Old Matriarch, Fifth Uncle, Fat Nephew, and Pigtail Nephew (to name a few). They’re identified in the appendix, but their purpose is vague. By the time it’s over, the reader just wants to walk away. Was it a problematic translation from Mandarin to English, or was it simply a total lack of focus?
Before getting into the plot, such as it is, let’s look at the background of this book. It was begun shortly after Chang’s arrival in the United States in the ’50s, and not completed until some 20 years later. (Note the purposeful use of “not completed”, as in “incomplete” or “unresolved”.) Chang died in 1995, and Little Reunions did not see the light of day in China until 2009. The book might have been considered too risky to publish in her lifetime because of too many characters closely connected with people in her real life, but it seems the problem is deeper than that. Little Reunions simply has too many characters.
Chang’s reputation seems greater than the produced work, here. She’s considered the Chinese Joan Didion, a cool and detached chronicler of her people, life, and times, always looking down at the world through high-fashion sunglasses, hand on her hip, cigarette dangling between her lips. Change wrote carefully about Chinese life as the nation became emboldened by and soon under control of the Party before and after 1949. Her life ended in self-imposed seclusion and exile by the time she was found dead in her Los Angeles apartment in 1995. Such texts as Lust, Caution worked their way into the pantheon of important contemporary writing (not just marginalized as “female” or “Asian”) in their depiction of the danger that comes when mixing radical politics, insatiable lust, and the doomed fate all characters follow when they fail to accept their inevitable destiny.
Little Reunions opens with Julie Sheng, on her 30th birthday, contemplating the past. With her friend Bebe by her side, Julie remembers life with her mother, who always seems to be in the process of finding herself. Julie and Bebe drift back to life as teens, in their convent school, where Julie remembers how she felt about the status of China in the ’40s: “Nationalism is a common twentieth-century religion, Julie was not a believer. Nationalism is just a process.”
It’s a desperate scene depicted on campus as documents are destroyed before the arrival of Japanese troops. Corners of rooms are littered with human waste deposited by said troops as the ultimate expression of disgust. Julie returns home to Shanghai after troops arrive. She is 16, lively, and receptive to all the adventures her big family can and will offer. This is where the reader will likely be frantically flipping from the chapter to Character index in order to keep track of many characters who seem to go by several names, e.g., first aunt, second aunt, third sister. It’s a cluttered and confusing diversion written in the broadest of strokes. This is a family crumbling before our eyes through decades and different scenes and with the Cultural Revolution still ahead of them. The epic story is conveyed in a manner of literary whiplash, and the effects are jarring. A mother and daughter have an intimate conversation about thoughts and feelings rarely revealed, and suddenly we jump to a bombing.
There are missed opportunities in Little Reunions and roads not taken that could have made this a more understandable novel. Rachel, Julie’s mom, is constantly in flux, wandering from one situation to another, finding it difficult to relate to or even understand her daughter. Why didn’t we get more of that? Julie becomes a writer, fairly successful, and she recalls the impact of putting thoughts down as permanent record: “When Julie was in middle school, memento books were all the rage.”
While mementos were meant for childish record keeping, politics were more important as an adult. She temporarily seems to fall under the sway of her first husband Chih-yung, who proves most driven when expounding on theories: “Julie, however, felt theories without evidence were mostly ‘wishful thinking’ — the blind use of induction to force facts into pre-existing framework.”
Is Little Reunions a political manifesto? Is it about romantic entanglements? Are we getting as deep as we can into the complications of a Chinese mother/daughter relationship in mid-20th century?
This is where this reader gets frustrated. Where is Chang going with this story? There’s a brutal and graphic depiction of an aborted fetus that seems to have been incidentally added to this mix not for shock value so much as just another plot element, and it cheapens the meaning. The reader will likely wish Change had been able to narrow down the focus as well as cast of characters because the romantic musings prove more interesting: “There are similarities between the desire for food and sex. Just as she couldn’t prepare refined dishes, Julie wasn’t prepared for intimacy. Each time it happened like an unexpected event, and she felt too embarrassed to make any preparations.”
Perhaps that’s what Chang was trying to create with this novel and these characters that come to the edge of something real and raw but leave before fully facing it. We are told clearly that Rachel had trained her daughter from an early age to “…not be the least bit curious about people close to her. Julie always reserved her curiosity for outsiders.” We are also told that Julie is in a state of emotional chaos in those final years of WWII, understandably, but the aimlessness of the plot direction makes for a frustrating reading experience.
There are some funny scenes in Little Reunions that could work as stand-alone sketches. Chang brings us to a random opera performed during Chinese New Year where female hecklers repeatedly cry out “Why is every one of them so ugly?” By the end of this brief chapter, we get another impression of Julie: “The people around Julie were all merely geometric points with fixed positions, but each possessing no length or breadth.”
In the end, we learn that Julie had never wanted children of her own because she feared they would enact revenge upon her. In a way, the publication of Little Reunions as is seems to be its own revenge upon the writer. It’s hard to determine any Joan Didion elements in Chang’s work from this novel. Chang sent her completed 600-page, handwritten manuscript to close friends who later served as her literary executors. For those unfamiliar with Mandarin, it’s likely that Little Reunions will prove more frustrating than illuminating about the life, times, and desires of these characters. Julie is evasive and cold, the product of a restless mother. Chang’s characters are stuck in pages that say too much without, sadly, really saying anything.