In a review of Han Ong’s second novel, The Disinherited, Sharon Adarlo at Bookslut writes, “It’s better written [than Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle], but then again, it’s also dispiriting, cold, and has all the charm of a Thomas Hardy novel — meaning none.”
I haven’t read The Disinherited yet, but having read Fixer Chao I think that’s a pretty good description of Ong’s prose style. The whole time I was reading this novel, I wondered whether I was enjoying it, and the question remained unanswered when I reached the end. And, yet, there was so clearly something wonderful happening on the page—or, more accurately, something devastating—that whether I “liked” it or not seemed utterly beside the point. Ong has a dead-on, deadpan satirical voice that is so fatal that it lacks the glee one normally finds in even the cruellest satires.
In my professional life, I’ve spent the past few years researching the culture of chinoiserie in 18th-century Britain, reading through a literature obsessed with material objects as various forms of foreignness to be acquired and displayed. Knowing nothing about Fixer Chao when I picked it up, intrigued only by the fact that the author is a Filipino-American playwright who is the youngest recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, I was delighted to find that it is a late 20th-century, Asian American take on the same upper class materialism, which has survived the last two centuries largely intact. Ong’s protagonist, William Paulinha, is a down-and-out former Port Authority restroom hustler who gets taken under the wing of a bitter failed author, Shem, who wants to exact a kind of literary revenge on the upper-crust New York literati scene that has rejected him. They refashion William as Master Chao, Fung Shui expert, and send him out to hawk his oriental expertise at outrageous prices to pathetic rich people.
Like I said, the novel is not funny, but it does have its funny moments. This passage from Master Chao’s first outing made me laugh out loud:
That was what I was thinking, confronted by this short figure swathed in cotton. Why do things to this guy on whom a child could draw bunny ears and not be said to be caricaturing but instead completing? He was responsible for nothing. He was what I was to him: a symbol, a cardboard cutout.
And then I jumped in with both feet, and said: The mirror facing your bed should not be there. Because when the soul wakes up at night to move about in your dreams, and it sees its own reflection, it might scare itself to death.
Though I wasn’t facing him, I could sense Shem stifling a smile.
Lindsay obediently took the mirror down from the wall…
The second thing: The view outside his window was marred by a telephone pole.
Hmm, said Lindsay, awaiting an explanation.
The Chinese, I said, believe in secret arrows which drain away and threaten life. They call this malignant force sha. Telephone poles outside a window create this unfortunate phenomenon … You could, I told Lindsay, counter this by placing a tank of goldfish directly across from where the poles are. That would absorb the sha.
Lindsay frowned. He explained that he traveled too often to be able to maintain an aquarium. I told him that a plant would do, something green and with a red bow tied around its base, or better yet, planted in a pot painted gold.
He paused to consider the aesthetic effect this would have, and then said yes, he would do as I said.
And this passage, describing the work of a “part black and part Native American (a jackpot, guilt-inducing combination!)” playwright made me thankful that I myself had never been one of Ong’s competitors in the drama market:
His idea of directing seemed to he: Let the shit fly as fast as you can and make sure to fade the lights down before any of it lands. The actors looked like they were hooked up to an electroshock machine offstage which instantaneously jolt them if their joie de vivre went below a set level. They looked like they were going to be punished if they didn’t meet a certain quota of decibel violation. (And, to further aid this, the director had staged everything downstage, right up against the audience’s noses, as if their entire comprehension of the pieces would be jeopardized should they even miss the slightese ooh-wah or doo-da-dee-dee.) Their cheer was industrious and aided by the timing of hucksters selling dubious property. Both evenings were traffic-jammy with too much. Suddenly the word Technicolor seemed a suitable anagram for the word Punishment. The audience both nights cheered thunderously at the end, making me feel as if I’d walked in from Mars and had missed the turnstile where they handed out an instruction manual to explain the customs of my new home.
This passage helped me understand Ong’s “cold” style, as I thought guiltily about writers like Salman Rushdie or even Jessica Hagedorn (both personal favorites), whose technicolor novels have been received with so much enthusiasm by the literary “establishment.” This novel oozes contempt not only for the “establishment” itself—whether Broadway, the New York publishing scene, or the world of Condé Nast interior décor—but, perhaps more so, for those people who fancy themselves “outsiders” to the establishment and yet court its approval with the enthusiasm of trained dogs. That’s one thing this novel absolutely refuses to do—perform, in the sense of trying to charm its reader—which is precisely why it doesn’t matter to the novel in the end how much you liked it. Han Ong, frankly, has bigger things to think about.