Sunday, June 22, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 18th review - How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun

Doretta Lau -- How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

This book (and story) title is a mouthful, although Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central... is quite long as well.  Smart's title is a reference to Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion).  I'm not entirely sure if Lau is referencing anything in particular, although given the context of this particular story, it might be a riff on Mao's blanket dismissal of intellectuals as "a blade of grass atop a wall" that bend with the wind.  (I believe there is a dismissal of the intellectual's individuality and betrayal of communal needs along on top of the characterization of intellectuals as spineless.)

Quick update: in an interview, Lau explains that this is actually reference to a Tang Dynasty poem by Meng Jiao that Yao Ming quoted when he had his jersey retired.  Interestingly, the title story riffs on the potential confusion between Mao and Yao, among Asian-Canadian youth who don't know their history.

So apparently, focusing on the Asian backgrounds of the characters means ghettoizing Lau's stories, but it really seems impossible for me to discuss them as if they were "universal" whatever that means.  Lau writes almost entirely about artistic young Canadians with an Asian background, primarily Chinese or Korean.  They encounter and hang out with other Asian-Canadians, and their artistic reference points are almost entirely Asian (Haruki Murakami, John Woo and Wong Kar-wai).  There are two significant exceptions: Glenn Gould and Jeff Wall. Most of the stories are sent in Vancouver, which has a large Asian population, so that one can hang out primarily with people of the same background.  As an aside, it might be interesting in another 5-10 years to see if there emerges a Canadian literature where the characters with East Asian and South Asian backgrounds interact with each other and with "Anglo-Canadians."  This seems to be occurring in the malls of Burnaby (more than in Vancouver and certainly Richmond), so will this "melting pot" approach ever become an actual theme in Canadian literature or will Canadian literature remain more of a mosaic with not as much overlapping and blurring?  Anyway, I think this discussion is heading into a not very productive direction, so I will cut it short.

What is somewhat more interesting is that Lau herself has an arts background and writes stories on art and culture for Artforum International and the Wall Street Journal, among other things.  So in the spirit of writing what she knows, the majority of her characters have gone to arts school.  In a couple of places there are references to parents or grandparents being befuddled by these children not going into finance, medicine or engineering.  Yet this is the clearest sign that Lau's generation is thoroughly integrated into the majority culture, that they feel they have the economic stability to go into the humanities (and not dabbling in the humanities in a pre-law sort of way).  In one story, a big deal is made about student loans (and how the author isn't supposed to be working in New York on a student visa).  In some stories, economic insecurity raises its head (especially "The Boy Next Door" and "Rerun") whereas in others it appears that the characters are working some type of job but may also be supported by parents (who may be glad to be paying the price so that they don't come boomeranging back). 

The short stories are all over the map in terms of style and content.  The first two are in the fantastic vein (SF/fantasy/occult).  We start off with a story where people can get texts from their future selves, and this has predictable consequences.  What is a bit droll is that the texts have to be kept pretty short, which means that the messages are not always clear.  Nonetheless, the future selves lean towards being quite abusive to their younger selves, and it isn't at all clear why this would be.  What's particularly odd is that the lottery is cancelled, but stock market trading continues.  So I didn't find this "convincing" (not that it was really meant to be a "realistic" story with time-travel elements), but I liked this back-and-forth: "'How does this store stay afloat without the scratch-and-wins?'
'That will be ten dollars, please' he says, pointing to the bread."

The next story is about a woman who is counseled to fall in love with a dead celebrity.  After some thought, she settles on Glenn Gould.  Improbably, he accepts her offer to meet.  It's an odd story, showing off Lau's knowledge of certain facts about Gould's life.  It doesn't have quite the emotional resonance that I think she was going for.  It reminded me a bit more of a Donald Barthelme piece and might have worked better if it was shorter still.

"Little Miss International Goodwill" seemed to be a reworking of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, though much, much shorter.  Here the girl wants blonde hair and she bleaches her hair with laundry bleach.  Fortunately, the outcome isn't nearly as disastrous, and she doesn't seem to suffer any permanent damage.  She ends up closer to her mother and more reconciled to her looks at the end.

"Rerun" is an odd story about a washed up actress whose defining feature appears to be her silicon implants.  The whole thing goes by like a dream or a drug trip.  For some reason, I am reminded of T. Coraghessan Boyle's style in some of his short stories, but that is probably not really an apt comparison.

Several of the stories are clearly influenced by Wong Kar-wai films -- in particular "Days of Being Wild" and "Robot by the River".  I didn't even realize until a quick Google search that "Days of Being Wild" is actually the title of one of his films, in addition to being the title of Lau's story.  In this case, the linkage is that the male lead is improbably handsome and emotionally distant.  There is less physical violence in these stories, so that is a bit of a switch from Wong Kar-Wai (though one character in "O Woe is Me" makes a living dodging paint balls and rotten fruits & vegetables in a carnival).

Many of the stories are about characters with a lot of emotional distance from each other and unexamined unhappiness and just not knowing what they actually want.  This is a pretty typical condition for youngsters, particularly those immersed in the arts, though to be fair, many middle-aged people don't have things figured out any better (and if they do, they aren't interesting enough to write about -- Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale may be one of the few exceptions, but I can't even vouch for that at the moment).  In addition to the obvious references back to Wong Kar-Wai, I actually wondered if there were closer ties to Tsai Ming-Liang and his films of alienated youth (particularly The Hole, which I have packed away -- and has apparently gotten quite hard to get ahold of).  On the literary side, I wondered if there were purposeful references to Alice Munroe, though I happened across Lau's own blog and she was name-checking Mavis Gallant instead.

What I am not sure is intentional is if the art references are supposed to be fairly easy to capture (so the readers feel smarter) or if I just happen to be immersed enough in the arts world that I am up on these artists.  It isn't that hard to know about Jeff Wall, who is quite well-known (an entire story "Writing in Light" is built around interpretations of a few of Wall's early photos such as The Destroyed Room), but I also caught the reference to Rodney Graham in a different story.  

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978

I've been thinking a bit about one phase of Graham's career, since it sort of ties in with the Coupland exhibit.  (As it happens, I am going to check that out again tomorrow with the kids, so I'll try to blog about it soon.)  I think it would have been nice to work in a reference to Fred Herzog, who was one of Wall's inspirations.  I think I recognized nearly all the references, although I blanked on the non-fiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (I did recall some details after looking it up on Amazon, but it isn't the kind of book that interests me all that much). 

"How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun" is definitely the most different of the bunch in that the kids appear younger (still in high school) and are treading fairly close to delinquent territory.  That's not to say they won't get their acts together, get into university and ultimately become middle class, "model" immigrants, but at the moment, they are acting a lot like a street gang.  Though a street gang that is both appropriating American Black youth culture and is trying to fight against Asian stereotypes.  I was actually reminded of this small gang in Carlos Fuentes' Christopher Unborn that acts partly like a Greek chorus at times.  A perhaps more intentional (though unnamed) influence might be the early plays of David Henry Hwang, like F.O.B. and Trying to Find Chinatown.  I think the only odd note is that one of the girls calls herself Suzie Wong, in an attempt to reclaim the name.  While I know there are few roles for Asian actresses in Hollywood films, The World of Suzie Wong is close to 50 years old.  Is this still in general circulation and is seen as something that young Asian women have to fight against?  (As opposed to Puccini's Madama Butterfly which is still performed regularly, and incidentally skewered in Hwang's M. Butterfly.)  Sometimes it seems that cultural warriors are just looking for excuses to be offended when there are plenty of more pressing and contemporary insults to be borne and stereotypes to be fought.

Now Lau is apparently working on a full novel and/or screenplay, but it is not at all clear which of these many directions she would want to go in.*  I suspect that the alienated art student approach is probably not going to provide enough general interest.  She might be better off going in the street gang milieu, but again, it might be hard to carry this off for hundreds of pages, especially if she doesn't have true connections to this world, i.e. the street gang was a pure exercise in imagination and didn't draw on any people she knew.

My favourite of the bunch was "Left and Leaving."  This is the second story that references the Robert Pickton murders of prostitutes and drug-addicted women from Vancouver (many of them with a First Nations background).  While it is never entirely clear, the story suggests that the mother of the two girls featured in the story was one of Pickton's victims.  In any case, the girls are in the foster system with a particularly sympathetic family.  However, one of the sisters continues to act in extremely rebellious ways and sabotages her chances for adoption.  The reader is left wondering if the causes are primarily genetic (the girls are actually half-sisters) or emotional (abandonment and then pre-emptive rejection of the foster family before they can reject her).  While it is a very sad story, this is one that I think could be expanded into a novella or even a full novel, depending on which direction Lau went with it (either to delve into their back history before their mother vanished and more of their relatively idyllic time with their grandmother -- or to focus on the remaining girl's search for her sister).

While it is a totally different set-up and a slightly happier ending, while reading "Left and Leaving" I kept thinking of Michael Golamco's Year Zero (a play that premiered at Victory Gardens in Chicago).  What is constant is two children more or less forced to rely on each other when they lose their remaining family.  I really liked it, but not everyone shared this view.  Interestingly, it seemed to play better in LA than in Chicago.  It could just be there was too much else going on at the time in the Chicago theatre scene.

To sum up, the stories are quite interesting, though thematically quite different.  Anyone who is interested in literary portrayals of post-millennial Vancouver will probably be interested, as well as those who want to read up on what Asian-Canadian arts students are getting up to nowadays.

* In the same interview, she explains the novel will be about a textile historian, but the novel format will be heavily influenced by Teju Cole's Open City.  I'm not sure whether I am down with that or not.  Time will tell.

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