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"Steer Toward Rock" by Fae Myenne Ng

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At a horrific, life-changing moment, a Chinese immigrant in the United States under a false name and false pretenses thinks of some wisdom his mother had given him. He is about to be separated from his hand as two thugs drag him to a table saw, he remembers his mother’s aphorism: “Trust rock, she told him. Break fear upon rock. … Go toward fear. Trust fear. Steer toward rock.” She told him this as she was preparing to sell him to an illegal immigration ring in the U.S.

So the young man, who must make payments to his mob boss for the right to live, sustains himself at this ghastly moment. And Steer Toward Rock becomes the aphorism by which this novel’s characters must live if they want to find meaning, family, and happiness. Impressive for its sustained obliquity, Fae Myenne Ng’s book brought me into the Chinese culture in San Francisco’s Chinatown like no other book ever did. She stretches this culture taut across a frame of trans-Pacific exploitation and racketeering. We learn of the purchased boy from China whose name becomes Jack Moon Szeto, a multiple falsity rooted in a scheme to allow illegal entry to Chinese immigrants. Before confessing his status to the American authorities, he becomes another link in the illegal and oppressive chain. He must take a bogus bride purchased for him from China, but here he finds companionship and eventually fathers a fiery, headstrong daughter.
 
This entire history leads to the daughter. This is really her story – how she hasn’t steered toward the rock of honesty in her love life, but does free her father from the tangled, fear-ridden narrative of his past by shepherding him through the naturalization process.

I love the conversations between the Chinese men in San Francisco. They holler at each other, tease each other, voices seemingly raised at all times; they want to get each other’s goats. Through it all, though, there is honesty, good will, humor, and bemusement at life.(Jack himself exhibits wisdom unusual in one his age;  his almost every statement, every piece of advice for friends and family drips with ancient Chinese wisdom.) This banter, with its glimpse into Chinese culture, is a major delight here, and worth the price of admission all by itself. I could have wished for a more-closely-described San Francisco, but this may have been absent by authorial intent. She tells her story obliquely, until roughly the last quarter of the book, when the daughter’s character takes center stage and the narrative takes on greater concreteness. Until then, though, the story is told as though through a mist, becoming visible like Victorian homes on a foggy day in San Francisco.

It would be hard to top this book’s intent look at the San Francisco Chinese culture, or its treatment of the Hon Pak confession program, pursued in the 1950s by U.S. Immigration authorities as a sort of bait-and-switch tactic to get better records on Chinese and other immigrants. The family histories feel all too true, and the saga of exploitation all too consistent with the world’s ever-present greed.

"Arcadia" by Lauren Groff

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How does a well-meaning man, living the principles of an idyllic and idealistic upbringing, cope with the wrenching changes in his life? How does a visionary leader engender his ideals in his followers? Lauren Groff provides memorable answers to these questions in her knowing and compassionate second novel, Arcadia.  

A cult has grown up around Handy, a folk/rock singer reminiscent of Jerry Garcia. He and his followers realize their utopian dream when they come into 600 acres in Upstate New York, and in the late 1960s they found the commune Arcadia. Built on full egalitarian principles, Arcadia achieves self-sufficiency for a time, with acceptance for misfits, common-law marriages, and a hands-off policy toward drug use. Into this idyll is born Ridley Stone, a premature baby and diminutive child and adult, known universally as “Bit.” Through Bit’s eyes we witness the unique and inexorable events of this story: a community starts under the highest ideals, but human nature rears its head and jealousy, lust, covetousness, and anger creep in to spoil things. Bit suffers particularly on account of the women in his life: his mother Hannah suffers from seasonal affective disorder and barely stirs from bed for months at a stretch. Helle, the childhood chum who grows brightly beautiful by age thirteen turns out quite troubled – a heavy drug user and apparent thief. Eventually she becomes the mother to Bit’s daughter Grete, and at least in his daughter's case, Bit’s influence proves sufficient to inculcate responsibility and a sense of family.

We suffer as along with Bit. He’s a sympathetic character: caring, gentle, and wise, if a little timid. In this way he embodies the commune and its spirit. At the end of the story, his mother’s mortality grinds down Bit’s last nerve and physical reserves, but also provides a release from some overwhelming responsibilities, and an opportunity for love. Arcadia is the history of a noble experiment, an experiment that has hopeful beginnings, a golden age, and a tragic end. We hope Bit’s end will not be tragic, because he’s a highly sympathetic being who was schooled in principles by parents with high ideals.

And truly that is the story: Ms. Groff questions whether a commune like the one she describes can withstand the vagaries of human nature. The Arcadia of her story certainly can’t. Bit, however, is the community’s central figure, true to its ideals to the end. We wish his luck with the love of his life could have been better. This novel enjoys a much tighter focus than The Monsters of Templeton, and the result shows off the author’s great skill with the language and the depth of her treatment of the moral issues. The prose throughout makes this novel fairly glow – there’s almost no other way to describe it. This is a highly memorable read with fully-drawn characters, and a unified theme and concept carried forward very precisely by the characters. Ms. Groff’s skill is really very impressive, and I’ll frankly say it’s more than I hoped for after Monsters. She hits it out of the park! Take it up!

“The Informers” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Juan Gabriel Vásquez makes his title plural, because the informers are everywhere in this interesting and self-reflective novel. The author plays himself, so to speak, in writing this book, and the narrative taking up the first three quarters poses as a book which has been published. However, there is very nearly nothing we can consider meta-fictional here; Sr. Vásquez plays this very straight. The result is entertaining, thought-provoking, and full of cautionary lessons.

Sr. Vásquez uses the voice of a Colombian journalist who has written a book about the life of Sara, his immigrant friend. Sara moved to Bogotá in 1938 from Germany with her prosperous Jewish family, and has lived there ever since. She became friends with Gabriel Santoro, prominent attorney and language professor. Santoro’s son, also called Gabriel, is our narrator-journalist. Santoro senior reads his son’s book and writes a prompt and excoriating review. We very gradually learn the reasons for the hostility, and they stem from the elder man’s guilt about something he apparently said about an acquaintance, an immigrant man from Germany, during World War II. He informed. The result is a blacklisting of the acquaintance-victim, Konrad Deresser, who is detained, imprisoned, loses his family and his business, and at war’s end, commits suicide.

This bit of character assassination starts the dominoes falling, and it takes more than fifty years for all the effects to be felt. 

The author takes up the immorality of calumny very effectively: the perpetrator destroys his victim, and lives with his guilt for decades. Even as he becomes a prominent professor and rhetorician, his words and his acquaintances betray him. Eventually we aren’t sure whether he’s killed himself or not. The moral territory is crystal clear and the language engaging and seamlessly translated. This book abounds in subtleties: the snitch becomes a jurist-rhetorician; the son becomes a truth-seeking journalist who inadvertently brings ruin to the father. Well-written and throught-provoking.