Monday, 7 April 2008

Tinling Choong's FireWife combines Beckett's insatiable 'I' with a rollicking magical-realism. This is not, as one blogger says, "the story of a woman named Nin who lives as a dutiful daughter and wife".

Nor is it, as another blogger quotes (from the publisher's website), "a fictional tale of a fledgling photographer, Nin, who leaves her corporate job in California to photograph women in various places throughout the world".

Even Choong, herself, is not quite candid, stating: "a story of eight contemporary women". Closer, though, is the website 'synopsis', which promises a novel

about plight and emancipation, sexual subjugation and liberation, escape and desire. It’s about human vacillations. It’s about the gap between merely knowing and actually living one's true self. It is about the tension between being mentally adventurous and being physically (therefore really!) adventurous.

This is an Asian Kundera. Choong addresses issues which are common across cultures (we could talk usefully about the impact of writing on culture, and the death of the goddess).

Nevertheless, the fundamental strain is to do with self-determination in its many aspects, which would include both economic independence and mental liberation. At one stage near the end of the book Nin, the protagonist, feigns "a worldly woman at the pinnacle of her charm and power confidently surveying her prey and insinuating what she desires".

But the subsequent narrative collapses this image into a cold box of play. Choong wants more. The final creation myth points to the generosity (and arrogance) of her project: she wants to synthesise her pain and anger into a real solution.

With mud and mothers as her vehicle, she points to a particularly Chinese tendency to "a determination to express humanistic concerns transparently and unequivocally", as Gloria Davies writes in her Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Enquiry (p 224).

"The presumption of transparency," continues Davies, "reflects an intense longing for an unequivocal truth that is imagined, in turn, as articulable in language." If we take, as an obverse beginning, Michael Galak's belief that "religion playing the role of social glue, became portable and universal" ('Anti-Semitism, Its Origins and Prognosis', Quadrant, Jan-Feb 2008, p 23), it is possible to locate, in Choong's text, a seminal point.

It is the death of Nin's sister ("I made Mian big when she was only five, and she died" in a well), but it pursues her (as only an Asian family can - Nin's early life is defined by her close relations) into corporate life ("God, please cut me loose from the Rat Race, the Machine! The Guilt! Please, God, I've heard of your Strength. I want only my Guiltless Original Me. Please.").

She desires release but can only express it in negative terms, and in terms that draw her attention, relentlessly, back to her family:

Over the years, I duplicated and duplicated, just so I could travel, or more precisely, fly, especially in the empty night flights. Tied to a small seat by a belt on a plane, I would first see my sister in my mind's eye and I would feel guilty and die and heal and renew and see a new me outside, against the window, not an architect of any kind, not a sister, not a wife, not a daughter, not woman, not friend, not worker, not stranger, not not stranger. Absolutely self-less. Yet absolutely self-centered. Absolutely guilt-free. History-free. Absolutely anonymous.

In Choong's cosmology, Fire is a liberating thing, and is tied to sexual gratification. But Water tries to douse Fire, and its mechanism in the human sphere is shame.

But I felt ashamed, acridly ashamed. I couldn't stop my moving and his looking. Shameless woman I am, I thought to myself, as I rubbed more and more violently against the base of his thumb.

On her website, Choong notes that the start of the novel coincided with seeing "a photograph in a book about Japan" in which men ate sashimi from a woman's body, as if it were a plate. I sense Choong's tremendous power. But this ignitial, tonic moment (moment of truth) carries with it some danger. This is such as any 'engaged' fiction faces: that it may generate fame at the cost of real artistic accomplishment.

Choong, furthermore, is a budding academic.

The book is beautifully set in a sharp, accurate typeface that oozes sophistication and flair. Its uncut outside page edges add charm. I read it in a few hours, after work on a weekday, so it certainly must be entertaining.

The enthusiasm is both persuasive and thrilling. The short sentences, many uttered conversationally by this character or that, create a breathless, intimate tone that serves to deliver the book's more recondite themes easily to the reader's mind.

I look forward to reading the novel Choong mentions in her afterword, and wish her all the very best good fortune - both yellow and red - plus a thousand happy mornings in New England.

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