In the Wake of Art and Beauty

Reviewed by Marie Lo

According to Sau-ling Wong in Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance, the second generation’s pursuit of art and beauty is often perceived as an “extravagance” by first-generation Asian immigrants whose lives are constrained by the “necessities” of survival. This articulation of the intergenerational conflict found in many Asian North American narratives (think Evelyn Lau’s Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid) is reworked in novels by Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Chong. While the pursuit of art and beauty is a central theme in both, they offer refreshing and complicated tales of its impact on intergenerational relationships.

There are many similarities between the two novels. Both are set in Vancouver, and their Chinese Canadian protagonists are verbally restrained and emotionally withdrawn. Danny of The Better Mother is a photographer and Malcolm in Beauty Plus Pity is an aspiring model. Despite being on opposite ends of the camera, they have a similar relationship to it; through the camera, they are able to capture what they otherwise cannot express. The camera becomes a metaphor for alienation, memory, and loss, as well as for the transformative possibilities of art.

Inspired by the late photographer Theodore Saskatche Wan’s photos of exotic dancers, The Better Mother shuttles between the post-war period and the 1980s during the early days of AIDS. Danny, closeted and estranged from his parents, is haunted by a childhood encounter in a Chinatown alley with a burlesque dancer, the Siamese Kitten. Captivated by her unapologetic sexuality and glamour and touched by her warmth, Danny sees the Siamese Kitten as the antithesis of the drab and cold oppressiveness of his parents. He spends his adulthood trying to reconcile his desires with his parents’ expectations, and when he finally meets the Siamese Kitten, now known as Val, he learns that she too has secrets. Her choice to be an artist and push the boundaries of respectability have come at a tremendous cost.

The nostalgia that powers Danny’s longing is heightened by Lee’s evocative and vivid snapshots of a Vancouver that no long- er exists. Her scenes of Chinatown and the rise of the burlesque in the 1940s with its shifting racial and moral codes are powerful foils for her descriptions of 198s gay culture, undergoing a similarly radical change as AIDS begins to spread.

Whereas the tone of The Better Mother is melancholic and nostalgic, the tone of Beauty Plus Pity is light and comic. The only child of frustrated artists, Malcolm is a sardonic and socially awkward slacker who half-heartedly begins modelling because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. He is not handsome so much as he is “distinctive,” and he goes from one humili- ating gig to another under the wing of a modelling agent who is more lonely than he is. After the death of his father, a failed filmmaker-turned-commercial director, his fiancée dumps him and he learns that he has a bi-racial half-sister. Though his sister Hadley did not grow up with the same privileges, she is self-confident, open, athletic, and motivated—everything Malcolm is not.

The novel’s breezy tone belies its pathos, and Chong effortlessly moves between the absurd and the heartbreaking. As Malcolm and Hadley’s relationship deepens, the particular burden of being a neglected child of artistic parents comes into focus. Malcolm’s foray into modelling becomes better understood as a way to mourn the loss of his father and become visible to his self-absorbed mother.

In exploring the pull of art and beauty, The Better Mother and Beauty Plus Pity make clear that no one is immune to their calling or protected from what they leave in their wake.

This review “In the Wake of Art and Beauty” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 157-58.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.