Monday, 17 September 2018

Book review: All Roads Lead to Blood, Bonnie Chau (2018)

I read the first of the stories in this collection (‘Monstrosity’) and part of the second (‘Medusa Jellyfish’) but the book was not appetising for me and I stopped reading before finishing the second story. The edition I had is a bit strange furthermore as there were no location numbers on each page as there usually are on Kindle books. Also, there was no copyright page to show the year of publication.

Chau has no Wikipedia page and the biographical information online is thin. She has a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University, which is in New York, but she comes from southern California. She works in a bookstore in New York and also does work for a website publishing literary fiction. (A master of fine arts degree is an American thing which focuses on professional practice rather than on academic study, as a master of arts degree does.)

This book is determinedly experimental and it uses a kind of method that Laurence Sterne introduced in ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ (1759) where the narrative is slowed down in an effort to accommodate the consciousness through which it is focalised. In Sterne this can have hilarious consequences as the writer inserts lengthy asides into the narrative, so that it can take a couple of pages in that book for the character being described to do something as simple as walk down a staircase.

In Chau’s stories, there are halts, stoppages, asides, and deliberations aplenty as the story unfolds at a glacial pace while the writer incorporates as much as she is able in order to render reality in the way that she deems suitable for her purposes. This kind of writing is as old as Joyce, of course, and they even had to invent a new term to describe it: stream-of-consciousness. But in Chau’s hands it’s frustrating because the utility of all the pauses and doublings-back is not clear. There’s no lack of effort but the result does not impress.

It’s also difficult to understand who is who and what they do. In the second story in the collection we find Rhiannon and she talks with different people in the course of the period of time rendered in the story but it’s not at all clear where she works and how she’s involved in a restaurant. This is a devastating failure in a story where the nuances stemming from the relationships between people constitute much of the material being deployed to create character and to further the plot. Suddenly she’s talking with a cook, then she is talking about her intern. Where does she work? What does she do? Who are these young, educated people in the room and what is their relationship with Rhiannon?

Evidently you’re supposed to wait until the end where presumably all would be revealed, but I was floundering in the morass of images and feelings that were thrown up apparently at random as the author tried to make a world out of words. It’s a world animated by a consciousness the people living in it have of their ethnicity. Chau presents us with people who come from a Chinese background in such a way that you cannot ignore the rhetorical points that are part of the stories’ aspirations for the reader. 

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