James Clavell, after two best sellers ("King Rat," 1962 and "Tai-pan," 1966) and one blockbuster ("Shogun," 1975), comes forth now with "Noble House," a 1,200-plus page book with a massive firtst printing of 250,000 copies. Most of the story's action is compressed into a single week in August 1963 in Hong Kong. This place and its people caught up in an intricate multi-textured plot ensure that "Noble House" will be Clavell's biggest triumph yet.
Hong Kong is not one of those places where there's no there there. And Clavell refutes the old French saying, "The most beautiful woman can't give you any more than she's got," by getting even more out of Hong Kong than it has. He spent all of 1963 there, has been back each of the past six years, and has the geography down pat: Victoria, Kowloon, the Golden Ferry -- they're all here. But though he sketches the boat people of Aberdeen Harbor and other peasants, nothing much happens to them but the weather, most of his interest being on the moneyed elite, particularly the entrepreneurial buccaneers.
The main plot involves a power struggle between Ian Dunross, the tai pan (head) of Struan's, Hong Kong's leading trading firm, and his archrival Quillan Gornt of Rothwell-Gornt. Into this maelstrom of machination jet two American conglomerate raiders, a young man and women, who play the tai-pans off against each other in an attempt to get a giant foot into Asia. The Americans have agreed to live together sans consummation for seven years, the end of the period due during this crucial week. Trying to destroy each other, the two tai-pans, of course, manipulate the Americans, the Chinese banking interests, dope smugglers and others.
Clavell skillfully weaves espionage into this financial power struggle. Here are the Hong Kong police and Special Branch, the KGB, Chicoms, the CIA and the Mafia. Even the FBI weighs in -- though the bureau was supposedly restricted by charter to U.S. domestic activities then -- and, of course, there is the obligatory mole. Hong Kong is a British Crown Colony, not a democracy, and the tai-pans profess no politics, but success in their own struggle pivots on the outcome of the intelligence intrigue.
Clavell has a Chinese sage bless the new son of one of characters with the benediction that the child may live in interesting times. Though he gets it wrong -- put this way, it is a curse not a blessing -- the child is born in a damned interesting times. As we meet the characters they are already in furious flux and we know soon enough that most of them when caught between two evils generally will choose the one they haven't tried yet.
Clavell subordinates character and language to action, and if some of his characters never get beyoung cardboard representations, it doesn't matter. What does is the pace, the racing melange of plots, which move with rich precision to a striking denouement. Plotting is where Clavell excels. Descriptively, he can't do for Hong Kong what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles, and his dialogue is quite a cut below Hemingway. But he can and does keep half a dozen major plots moving and the reader turning the pages. The big plot climaxes, made to order for TV and movies, focus on reactions of the island's elite when caught in a fire on a four-stories-high floating restaurant, and in the denouement, in massive judslides that tumble towering apartment complexes.
The English poet Robert Southey wrote that the two greatest mysteries in or out of this world were the Holy Trinity and what makes a book sell. The latter is no mystery for Clavell: action equals sales. But he also provides a bonus by expounding Chinese folkways. The reader will learn of Chinese "face," joss (luck), cuisine -- including such delicacies as snake and dog if not live monkey -- ceramics, geomancy, secret societies (triads), and h'eung yau (bribery or "squeeze"). And of violence most vile.
On the deficit side, Clavell's style is like an ostrich -- it runs but can't soar. Sometimes his diction dozes. Too many characters have the "sick sweet taste of the kill," too many gods are fornicated, too many Chinese refer to foreigners as "dung stained foreign devils," and too many people irrespective of class use gutter profanity. On the other hand, his use of such Cantonese expressions as "heya" and "ayeeyah" sustain atmosphere and story, and his refusal to translate the obscenities deserves applause. As does his not using the four-and five-letter English equivalents for the female and male sex organs (preferring instead to use 20 or so picturesque euphemisms). On the sex act itself he is equally restrained: Though the book reeks with the talk and suggestion of it, nothing is consummated till page 682, and there's precious little the rest of the way. Money and power, not sex, are the book's major lubricants.
With "Noble House," his fourth book, Clavell's "Asian Saga" only pauses. Next, he will update "Shogun" in "Nippon," and then tackle the whole mainland in "China." Rounding out the "Saga" will keep him busy writing for another decade at least, and his fans doing what is often regarded as obsolete -- good old-fashioned reading. The popular country song has it, "It ain't love, but it ain't bad." "Noble House" may not merit the term literature -- Clavell will never win a Nobel prize -- but as storytelling done with dash and panache and as a rousing read it looms above most of the commercial pap published today.
And will be bloody successful.