Thursday 9 April 2015

Lust, Caution

(April 2015)

I need to read more of this kind of stuff: mid-twentieth century writing by vaguely dissolute women. Of course, all that most female writers from that era needed to do to gain a ‘vaguely dissolute’ reputation was to speak their minds and openly enjoy something other than childcare or macramé, but on the occasions I do read them they seem infinitely more contemporary to the present day than male writers of the same period. I’d be the first to admit that my sample sizes for both populations are pitifully small, but there’s something to be said for the theory that in order to compete with the men women had* to be better than them. Clearly this was grotesquely unfair, but as a reader it does mean that you get access to books that are, well, better.

Anyway, this volume collects five of Chang’s short stories, most of which were first published in the 1940’s, while Lust, Caution itself was by all accounts started in the same period and constantly revised over the subsequent three decades. It’s clearly the best in the collection and very obviously of a different stripe to all the others. This is not to denigrate the rest, however; Chang had a searingly acute eye for human foible and was possessed of the rare and enviable ability to skewer a character with a single acid line, before (and this is the really impressive part) going on to undercut that initial tartness and fully humanize them.

What elevates the title story is how that sharpness of character is embedded into a brilliantly realized noir milieu, before that too is once more undercut. I’ve yet to see the movie adaptation, but the still from it they chose for the cover here is an excellent representation of what’s going on, with a femme fatale playing her role to perfection before it all collapses around her, entirely (and once more this too is key) of her own volition. You can see why Ang Lee chose to adapt it, and it appears this translation is a direct result of the movie’s success, so everyone’s a winner.

The other stories were largely first published in the 40’s and are more along the lines of slice-of-life vignettes set in occupied Shanghai. While they lack comparatively brilliantly realized atmospheres, they are far more clearly meant as character pieces, depicting frustrated second wives, quarrelsome massage parlour waiting rooms, and disappointed yet loyal domestic servants. The war chunters on in the background, and the pieces are all the more effective for the way they forefront the daily grind of the characters; no grand sweep of history here, this is what it means for the majority as they are subject to whims far beyond their control, and what it means is the same but slightly worse. Every character matters and all are entirely and expertly realised.

On an entirely different note, I’d like to pose a question: Are Chinese mothers really that bad? I mean I get that in fiction certain traits are exaggerated, but in every book I’ve read where they feature (and yes, there’s that sampling bias again) they seem to be the most selfishly overbearing harridans possible, obsessed with interfering in their children’s lives way past the point of all sanity. Is that really so common? Still, characters like that generally help to drive good stories, so I can’t complain, I’m just glad it’s not something I’ve ever had to experience first-hand.

*The use of the past tense here is highly questionable, I recognize.

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