Monday, July 07, 2008


As you may have noticed, I read mainly older novels. I spent many years happily reading Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, Antonya Nelson, and the late Ray Carver. But lately I have had bad luck with contemporary fiction, such bad luck that I've considered turning to biogaphies, and have one biography on my coffee table as I write this, about Evelyn Nesbit, though I have no idea who she was .

My cross-off list: I didn’t care for Peter Carey’s latest; Jim Crace’s futuristic trashed world was too horrifying and real (he can create a world); and Ethan Canin’s book simply floored me. How could I hate so innocuous a novel? See my post:

Fae Mayenne Ng’s STEER TOWARD ROCK is pretty good, though. Ng, a Chinese American born in San Francisco and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award in 1994, does not write much but what she writes is perfect.. STEER TOWARD ROCK,, her second novel, delicately integrates voice, identity, and place, making that integration almost the subject, and certainly the foundation of the novel. Her characters, like beautiful Origami figures, are shaped by her poetic prose and confident swirl of voices.

The main character is Jack Sveto, a butcher who “was sold to a (Chinese-American) woman who couldn’t have babies. The village was so small, its name was a number.”

And that is part of the sadness of this narrative: the numbers instead of names, the use of false names for illegal aliens. The characters are Chinese illegal aliens (like Jack), immigrants, and Chinese-Americans raised in San Francisco's Chinatown. Stories become confused. Stories and lies become truth. There is also a complicated Chinese belief about holding back part to the story. Even the younger generation is confused about identity.

Jack falls in love with a woman who won’t love him back. He gets her pregnant; she runs away. She is a Chinese-American with her real nane, She cannot imagine Jack's life.

“I first saw Joice Qwan at King Duck’s Noodle House. Mankok and I were running a hand truck of butchered pigs to the Four Seas and as we passed, there she was, sitting at my favorite windows, so I couldn’t see her face well. I was drawn to the way she held her bowl, a thumb on the top rim and four fingers underneath, so that the heavy restaurant bowl seemed cradled in her hand. “

Jocie is wild: a woman of the ‘60s. Jack is forced by Gold Sveto, his “fake father” (who extracts payment from Jack periodically) to bring over a pseudo-wife from China in Jack's name, so Gold can replace his infertile wife. IIronically, Ilin is infertile, too. But she has her own life, and learns to be a butcher.

Fertility and infertility are recurring themes in this novel. Jack’s daughter also struggles with story and backstory and family and choices.

There are a few problems with changing narrators. Ilin suddenly takes over a chapter. Who the hell? thinks. But voice is only one issue here, and we're soon swept away by the writing.


Ellen said...

I find myself distressed by the most contemporary novels which set their action in here and now. Qualification: well not by the more prestige-winning types (Booker Prize and Whitbread are examples), but if you look you discover the action is often set back in time a little, the characters are highly intelligent or well-educated, and there is often a history subplot of some sort.

It's not that I don't believe people live these sorts of lives, but that I don't live it and know no one who does, and while my circle is not extensive, through the Net and over the years I've known enough people.

The complete desperation and wildness of the stories makes me desperate. I have a young friend, Kathy, who has been trying to free herself of a husband and trying to get a decent job, and just got a decent apartment, finds herself pregnant and guess what? She won't think of abortion. The movies and pseudo-science have gotten to her; what this means is she'll fall back into one of these lives. Both young men are people in the army, as in the Bush USA there are few jobs and opportunities for the average outside the army. They are limited people, severely.

These modern books don't hold out any hope and they don't hold out an ideal or common sense. The "prestige" prize type do.


Mad Housewife said...

Yes, that's the gist of it: Some writers have obviously gone back to historical periods (30 to 100) years ago) because they can't capture the voices of the new blandness. Or maybe they're afraid to. And where are the novels about the Bush-era army, the working classes, or the retail clerks who work at WalMart? Will it take another 20 years to write them? Somehow we've already had the 9/11 novels, mostly from upper-class characters' points of view. So why 9/11 and not the Bush war?

Now Ng describes the '60 in Chinatown in San Franciso and a "confession act" which allows Jack to take a risk: he confesses his illegal status to the government and applies for Suspension of Deportation. She is writing about a historical period, but one that probably we don't know. It is her style that makes this interesting.

But I do get very irritated with many books these days: the ones I've blogged about (with the exception of Ng) are by prize-winning or literary writers. Carey goes back to the '70s; Canin goes back to the '70s; and Crace jumps to the future.