Saturday, November 20, 2010

Short-a-Day: Frances Hwang's "Blue Roses"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 1, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 51.

Here's your classic story of relationships, both with Lin Fanghui's family--three children, and her falling out with the oldest and closest--and her "good friend" Wang Peisan, who seems to do nothing but irritate her. (And yet, by the story's end, she describes this as "we need these small daily irritants, a bit of sediment in our mouths, to keep life interesting.") I don't think enough has been done with the story in terms of plotting--the events in the present aren't really fleshed out, and the flashbacks are more quaint than they are relevant--and I don't get a sense of the setting or the characters. But I do find Hwang's writing very easy to wade through--it's not particularly deep, but it has a few nice things on the surface, particularly the descriptions:

  • "Ever since she was a child, she has been indulged, her life as delicate as a teacup. She had weak lungs and her parents didn't expect her to live. They bought her larger and larger coffins as she grew."

  • "'His poetry was so-so, not a horse and not a tiger. But somehow his kindness and sincerity touched me.'"

  • "He was an amiable man, a bit plump, with thick square glasses. He looked soft as a sponge. If you squeezed him, the moment you let go he would return to his original shape. Of the two, he seemed much the healthier person. How could any of us have known that he'd be dead before the winter was over?"

At moments like these, I don't mind the lack of voice or tone of this supposedly first-person story, nor do I regret the meandering pace. But this is a story, not a poem, and the image of a woman with a sweet-tooth and an absent mind digging into a moldy, squishy cake disgusts me without doing anything further. As for the story, it's called "Blue Roses" (inspired by a similar quote in The Glass Menagerie), but that's not the focus of the writing--instead of staying with an ailing Wang Peisan and the effect that has on protagonist Lin, it keeps cutting to her home life, wringing its hands to draw things out, justifying erratic moods with the faint disclaimer of stubbornness.

Hwang's writing an open book, and the sprawl is such that the individual moments--her daughter's occasional flaring up of pimples ("a sign that her hormones are out of whack," whack being a word that I can't imagine this somewhat traditionally Chinese narrator actually using)--contribute nothing; they splash momentarily like pebbles on the pond, but skip no further--they sink and are forgotten. It's not enough, and if it is accurate, it's not convincing.

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