Wednesday, November 5, 2014

I Feel Like I'm in the Minority When It Comes to Our Book Club Discussion About "Five Star Billionaire."

At the In-Store Lit Group this week, we read Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw. It's the story of five characters in search of fame and fortune in the big city, and by big city, I mean Shanghai. There's Phoebe, a factory worker who wants to make it in management, Yinghui, who owns a chain of lingerie shops, Justin, a developer's son in charge of making a deal on the family's struggling movie theater, and a Gary, a much-hyped pop star. And then there is the Five Star Billionaire of the title, the elusive Walter Chao. Among Walter's many accomplishments is said to be writing a rags-to-riches self-help manual.

The story is told, as one reviewer called it, as shuffle fiction, round robining through the five characters. And in addition to being all strivers, they are all immigrants too, mostly from Malaysia, though of dramatically varying economic status. And this third novel from Tash Aw did pretty well, at least on the review front. Among its accolades, Five Star Billionaire was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. and it came with great personal credentials as well; my Chinese-teacher sister loved it, as did several of her family members (also with a good amount of experience in China) and several of her colleagues. The link is above--just look at those great reviews!

So very placey story than one might almost call sociological, multiple perspectives, a bit of a mystery too, what's not to like?, I figured. Well it turns out plenty. If I'd had one enthusiastic person in our first three or four speakers in the group, the conversation might have gone the wrong way, but it turned out the first few were negative and that tipped the conversation such that by the time we got to folks who liked the book, their enthusiasm was tempered. Or perhaps it was true that the folks who liked the book felt less strongly than the folks who did not, sort of like the recent elections. It reminded me of what Nancy Pearl said on her recent Wisconsin Public Radio appearance - her group is not allowed to say whether they like the book or not, at least at the beginning of the discussion.

So why was the group so far off from several other folks I knew? One hint was that two of the most positive folks in the group were Calista and David, our Australian members. David had done a decent amount of business in China and noted that the characters and situations really rang true to him. But it didn't help that one of the first attendees came to tell us she stopped reading the book quickly, got no indication that she would have enjoyed it if she continued, and was happy that she read two other books instead. Yes, that sort of set the tone, especially because she said it twice.

What were the complaints? To quote just one attendee whose sentiments were echoed by a few others, she felt like Five Star Billionaire could have been set anywhere and she didn't identify with the characters. To be specific, I think she was somewhere between thinking they were cardboard and unbelievable, but to me, those are too very different arguments and I thought she felt it was more of the latter than the former.

So firstly about the place. One thing I have noted about the American view of foreign cultures is that we are very preservation oriented. As immigrants, we often shuck off our past but we're not too happy when the place we leave behind tries to similarly unyoke from tradition. We expect developing nations to have the same ideas we do about preserving spaces as well, even though we weren't too hot on preserving anything 100 years ago. And when one reviewer mentioned Edith Wharton, I was reminded a bit of the striving of House of Mirth, no? But part of the reason this in some ways could have been anyplace is because modernity is a bit globalized, isn't it. If one is casting off folksy ways, one is going to do so in the city, though I dare say few Americans eat very much in hot pot restaurants. But if someone wants to read a place-centric historical novel about Shanghai that is geared to Westererners, they can't do better than The Distant Land of My Fathers, by Bo Caldwell.

You have to start from this being an immigrant story, and that involves mutating identity and that theme plays out among the characters in so many ways. Phoebe is using a false identity card and has pretty much lied about everything in her life. Walter claims to have written a book but used another identity as the author. Yinghui has reinvented herself as a successful businesswoman and Justin finds his own identity in flux when his family loses their fortune. And Gary, he's the ultimate shape-shifter, a pop star who is almost completely a creation of others; when he breaks out of character, he is effectively ruined. Like Phoebe, he spends his time on social networking sites pretending to be someone else. And of course Yinghui's family has built this mirage of respectability, living their lives in what Julia Lovell in The Wall Street Journal calls "smug parsimony" while Yinghui herself is oblivious that "her left-wing principles are made possible only by privilege and wealth."

I enjoyed the way the characters were interconnected in several different ways, with some of the characters knowing about the connections and some oblivious. Justin so despearately wants to connect with Yinghui, but instead he bonds with Yanyan, the unemployed girl in her pajamas who is Phoebe's roommate, and of course Phoebe works for Yinghi. Yinghui makes a deal with Walter, who knows Justin from old family business, and winds up meeting Phoebe as well. It's the Phoebe and Walter relationship that was a bit problematic to work out. This was one complaint of an attendee that I agreed with. Similarly Jan Stuart, who in The Boston Globe called "the ever-spiraling web of connections" as "improbable as it is entertaining", thought that there were holes in the narratve, and "most of these have to do with the ambiguous relationship between (Walter) Chao and Phoebe." If you can figure out what he wants from her, please let all of us know.

The cultural confusion continued into our discussion. While several attendees saw Five Star Billionaire as an indictment of capitalism, and this is a viewpoint that has been shared by several reviewers, Tash Aw himself rebutted this in an interview with Justin McDonnell in The Asia Society newsletter. "It's strange, but I really don't see my representation of Asian capitalism as negative, which is very different from how most people have read it, particularly in the West. I personally believe that the increase in material wealth, especially in China, has been a very empowering and exciting phenomenon; I'm also - contrary to other interpretations I've come across - not at all against change. I'm a modernist at heart, I like change, am excited by the way societies and cultures evolve."

As Roger noted, just because Tash Aw thought he was writing one thing doesn't mean that his work might in some ways be saying something entirely different. Just about every novel by a great writer has thematic undercurrents that the author isn't necessarily aware of, and in many cases, one's cultural background can determine how the data is interpreted. On discussing the book with my sister Claudia, she, as an aside, noted she just spent time with some Chinese colleagues had all sorts of strange generalizations about Americans, such as the fact that we do not like hot food? How did they come to this conclusion? it was because Americans tend to drink their water iced instead of at room temperature, and thus would be happier if the rice at a meal was served cold. Do you see how this can happen? Do you see how we make the same sort of generalizations about other cultures?

Interestingly enough, at around the same time, Mohsin Hamid released How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. While it was set in Pakistan (unnamed, but likely Lahore) instead of China, it also took the format of a self-help book, with chapter headings offering success platitutes. Unlike Tash Aw's novel which pretty much kept the concept to the chapter headings, Mohsin Hamid started each chapter as if he was writing the self-help book and slowly migrated away from it into the book's plot. Which one worked better? Both were well reviewed by reviewers, but you're going to guess who liked what. The attendees of the book club preferred Mohsin Hamid's version (if they read it) while my sister preferred Tash Aw's. The former played with both satire and romance; the latter stuck to its guns in terms of structure, in what I'd label a sociological novel. It certainly isn't romantic.

So do I recommend Five Star Billionaire to book clubs or not? It's true that the book starts a bit slowly, which led several folks to start late, thinking they could finish the book before our discussion. It's not that long a book, under 400 pages, but it did take most folks longer than they expected to get through the first 100 pages. But the folks who did like it, and I think they did like it, as several folks did argue that the second half of the story really picked up, might have reacted differently had I seeded the first few folks to speak with positive enthusiasm.

I might have, in a sense, completely changed the identity of the discussion.

Next up, we read Janice Clark's The Rathbones, a generational saga of a whaling family, said to be akin to The Odyssey, by way of Moby Dick and Edgar Allan Poe. Clark's novel has a big fan in Mel. That discussion is on Monday, December 1, 7 pm.

Then on Monday, January 5, we're tackling At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon, another quest novel, this one set in contemporary Mexico, which Conrad has compared to Fuentes and Bolaño.

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