Friday, 31 January 2014

'Imagine your new splendid life!'

I've read both of Tash Aw's previous novels, The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World, but can remember almost nothing about them. After finishing Five Star Billionaire - a book whose premise initially seems much bolder and more brash - I'm wondering if this forgettability is written into his prose. As with Aw's previous work, Five Star Billionaire follows a number of characters, but, unlike his other novels, focuses tightly on a single location, if a massive one; the metropolis of Shanghai. Phoebe Chen Aiping is a 'girl from the provinces' who is trying to hide her humble background and become a successful and attractive woman; Gary also hails from poverty but has become a pop superstar; Justin, having devoted himself to the interests of his family's property empire all his life, is turning his back on it at last; and his former friend Yinghui is a successful businesswoman, a career at odds with her disorganised activist past. The figure of 'Five Star Billionaire' Walter Chao, rich and secretive, weaves through all of their narratives, although the precise nature of his connections with these four characters is never made entirely clear. Walter, however, is the joker in the pack; if not for his machinations, the riches-to-rags tales that Phoebe, Justin, Yinghui and Gary have to tell would be even more predictable than they already are. Aw's style is gentle and his writing flows seemingly effortlessly, but the problem with this is that no detail ever sticks. As I reached the end of the novel, I felt that it was more of a fairytale than the glimpse into the ruthlessness of Shanghai society that it seemed to promise at the start.

This isn't to say that there's nothing worthwhile here. It was Phoebe's story that gripped me. Beginning as an illegal migrant worker, Phoebe is captivated by a cheap self-help book called Secrets of A Five Star Billionaire. She uncritically swallows all of its advice, and begins to use a series of mantras to regulate her life. 'Imagine your new splendid life and it will soon come true!' she thinks to herself as she buys an 'expensive fake' designer handbag and takes carefully-posed selfies for her internet dating profile. While the other narrators' voices sometimes bleed into one, Phoebe's is always distinguishable due to the stream of cliches she has internalised. For example, one of her chapters begins, 'That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women… this was the standard of woman she aspired to be, and on this day, going to have coffee with a man she'd met on the internet, she felt certain that she had finally attained that level of sophistication. Her life would now surely change for the better.' The sad irony of Phoebe's story is that her self-improvement stems not from her own efforts but from luck; after picking up an ID card that another girl leaves in a cafe, she is able to get proper work in a spa rather than living in a crowded dorm with other illegal factory workers. Believing that the only way forward is to trample on others, Phoebe makes herself indispensable at the spa by turning away other girls seeking work, and has another girl fired for giving her phone number to a client. She believes her success is due to following rules like 'Being nice is your mom's job - and look where it got her' but we can discern the string of chances behind Phoebe's rise.

The three other narrators echo the themes of Phoebe's story - the transience of unearnt success, the harm that comes from seeking money, the vulnerability that results from being honest - but I didn't find any of them captivating in the same way. Justin and Yinghui's stories occasionally flared into life, but Gary's tale has been told so many times before, although by poorer writers than Aw. And ultimately, Phoebe's arc is predictable and comforting; she might seem ruthless on the outside, but on the inside she just wants to be loved and taken care of. The only real monster here is Walter, the Five Star Billionaire. I felt there was a missed opportunity here to explore the questions the novel raises more deeply, but Phoebe, like the other characters, simply fades away. After each of Aw's novels, I've thought that I will carry on reading his work, despite its faults, because he is evidently a good writer. And I still think that I will read his next novel. I do wish, though, that he would deploy his obvious literary talents to do something slightly more daring, to say something less obvious. A multiplicity of characters and settings is no longer enough.

[Yes, this was meant to be a review of AM Homes's This Book Will Change Your Life, but I've come to the conclusion I will not get round to reading it in the near future, so that review is cancelled. Apologies.]

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