TROUBLEMAKER AND OTHER SAINTS
By Christina Chiu
Putnam. 278 pp. $23.95
Not long ago, I caught Margaret Cho in town at the Improv, where she was honing what she hopes will be the followup to her hugely successful one-woman Broadway show. Cho was hilarious, as usual -- delivering nuanced, affectionate sendups of her immigrant parents and acid, dead-on portraits of contemporary culture -- but there was a rawness to much of the material that was startling to some in the audience, who may not have been expecting the comedic equivalent of a woman walking out on stage and opening up a vein.
It was not so much the bluntness of the delivery that was arresting -- lots of comics work "blue" -- but the pain and emptiness that lurked just beneath the surface of the jokes about sexuality and being a woman in a man's world and growing up Other. Here, you sensed, was an artist coming to grips with all the crazy contradictions of her culture -- and coming into her own, as well.
Like Cho, Christina Chiu explores the generational, cultural and sexual divides with humor and compassion. And like Cho, Chiu at her best can strike a nerve, too; literary debuts don't come much nervier. The stories in this loosely linked collection are rife with the sort of thorny, in-your-face subjects that routinely crop up on the afternoon talk-show circuit: interracial marriage, eating disorders, bisexuality, revenge fantasies. But though she may occasionally revel in her own daring, Chiu isn't sensationalistic; ultimately, the topics themselves fascinate her a good deal less than what lies behind them: the strange fruits of the immigrant hothouse experiment. The book abounds in the lingo of uneasy assimilation: CAPS (Chinese-American princesses), "bananas" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), "Chinatown homeboys."
In "Beauty," Amy goes on a date with Thomas, an older man she's met through a personal ad -- a white man looking for his "Asian beauty." Sizing her up across the table at a restaurant, he wonders aloud, "You are Asian, aren't you?" Amy laughs scornfully. "I don't tape back my eyes, if that's what you're asking." Later, in the car together, she "can see him as the boy he was -- carefree and full of himself -- chasing the pretty girls for a quick kiss." Not unlike the boy who one day came after her, slammed her to the ground and screwed her ankle "into a shard of glass with the heel of his sneaker, chanting, Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees . . . " Amy's extended tease, naked in its desperation, is oddly affecting, and Chiu manages to evoke both sympathy and revulsion.
Like so many of Chiu's characters, Amy teeters perilously between two worlds, at home in neither. "I am not Chinese -- not Chinese Chinese," she says. The only non-white she's ever slept with is Jonathan, with whom she shares a fling in "Gentleman," a story about the Hong Kong Handover. In "Trader" -- all the stories bear single-word titles -- Jonathan reappears, and Chiu fleshes out a portrait of a hungry social climber who dismisses his boss's "Chinaman" jibes as Aussie colloquialisms and tells his skeptical girlfriend, "Aren't you the one who's always saying we need to understand cultural differences better?"
The stories can be read individually, but they have a cumulative effect, as characters reveal themselves a little more with each reappearance (and as Chiu herself gains confidence with each subsequent story). The narrative implications are perhaps outweighed by the political and cultural ones. No single story is allowed to stand as the last word, the definitive picture, and Chiu's nervy criss-crossing is paralleled elsewhere in her use of narrators -- young and old, male and female alike; she seems to take special pleasure in penetrating the minds of her mixed-up male protagonists. Not always successfully -- though she is unfailing in her efforts to create full, rounded portraits.
It is this same earnestness that, at times, threatens to undermine her narrative energy. The title story, "Troublemaker," concerns the fortunes of Jonathan's younger brother Eric, an inveterate mischief-maker who, feeling especially restless one New Year's Eve night, winds up hurling a beer can onto his Chinatown street, injuring an old man. His punishment, meted out by his waitress mother, is to tend to the "damn cripple" in his convalescence, an assignment meant to teach him something about humility, but unfortunately it's as if Chiu herself is the one doing the teaching. Likewise, Georgianna, the doctor who treats a young girl with an eating disorder in "Doctor" and becomes emotionally involved, suffers a little too gratuitously as a result, thereby obviating any chance we might have of suffering along with her.
Maybe the best story here is "Copycat," a nuanced, thoughtful examination of cultural and generational dissonance. In the wake of a daughter's suicide, a well-to-do suburban family comes unstuck: Todd Sheng-Stevenson has taken to spouting Buddhist koans; his father, Gary, retreats to the empty bedroom upstairs every afternoon to channel the spirit of his dead daughter; and Aggie, Todd's mother, has thrown herself willy-nilly into landscaping, eviscerating the front yard one afternoon with a cathartic dousing of Weed-a-Cide.
Everything Chiu is trying to do elsewhere is here brought together into an almost seamless whole: the sort of weighty, emotionally involving entertainment that contemporary fiction all too rarely achieves. It's a great story in an often very good collection, and reading it, you can't help but sense a writer just beginning to discover how good she can be. Here's to future discoveries. *
Todd Kliman teaches English at Howard University and is at work on his first novel.