Don’t call them prostitutes.
That’s the first rule of the Shanghai courtesans in Amy Tan’s exhausting new novel, “The Valley of Amazement.” Just because these women provide sex in exchange for money, they’re not prostitutes, so don’t even think that.
Deception and misperception are the stock in trade of the sex business — and of this story, too, which stretches over four generations and thousands of miles. The valley of “The Valley of Amazement” is very deep, indeed, an arduous journey of fraud, kidnapping and ritualized rape.
It has been almost 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club” launched Tan’s career, and this new novel explores some of the same themes of festering family secrets, the conflicts between mothers and daughters, and the sacrifices that women must make. Most of the story, which begins in 1905, is narrated by Violet, whose early confidence is cruelly squashed: “When I was seven,” she begins, “I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”
As it turns out, Violet knows almost nothing about who she is — or who her mother is — but she’s awfully well-informed about what goes on in a courtesan house. Lulu Minturn may earn a nice surplus by facilitating business deals between American and Chinese clients, but she generates the bulk of her income by managing sex workers who come to her as young as 13. Everything about the courtesan experience is refined into a complex tradition of wheedling and enticement that’s meant to disguise these meretricious transactions as “courtship.” In Violet’s clear-eyed descriptions, we see how clients pretend to woo her mother’s employees, plying them with gifts, competing for their favors, even begging for permission to stage mock weddings.
Tan doesn’t let us forget that these women are at the top of the sex trade, where they enjoy a level of financial and personal autonomy that common streetwalkers — and even middle-class Western women — can’t imagine. One courtesan rebukes a client: “You don’t need to pity us. We live quite well,” she says. “We have our freedom, unlike American women who cannot go anywhere without their husbands or old maid aunts.” But the graceful conventions — the lovely clothes, elegant dinners and genteel repartee — can’t hide the true nature of this business, laid out in these pages in exquisite and slightly shocking detail. Among the most disturbing practices that Tan portrays is the auctioning off of young virgins, a process breathlessly covered in the Shanghai press the way the Times might cover an exciting sale at Sotheby’s.
Even as Violet unveils this exotic world for us, she’s consumed with her own identity, the discovery of her true self, which becomes the story’s central, somewhat facile concern. Her slightly Asian appearance begins to challenge her sense of who she really is, and her mother’s evasions about her father don’t help put those suspicions to rest. It’s hard to trust a woman who sells affection professionally.
The novel is structured as a series of shattered promises, a pattern that readers will notice long before Violet does. In the first and most emotionally wrenching ordeal, the narrator is sold off as a virgin courtesan, plunging her into the very world of sexual competition and abuse that she observed so carefully under her mother’s tutelage. “Fate once made you American. Fate took it away,” a fellow courtesan tells her. “You are a flower that will be plucked over and over again. You are now at the bottom of society.” Still a teenager, Violet must cultivate her own clients, use her beauty and her intelligence to survive, and secure the Four Necessities of life: jewelry, furniture, a stipend and retirement. “Forget about love.”
But don’t forget about sex. There’s a lot of it in “The Valley of Amazement” — most of it contractual, some of it violent, a little of it romantic and all of it slightly odd-sounding. At one point, Violet tells us, “He flayed against me, until our bodies were slapping, and he took me into the typhoon and geologic disaster.” I didn’t know whether to call Dr. Ruth or the Red Cross.
But amid all the coupling, Violet’s adventures roll on, carrying her to great success and bitter defeat in an ever-expanding compendium of personal disasters, plagues, ghosts, double-crosses and losses at the hands of lovers, gangsters, lawyers and relatives. Her life as an undocumented biracial woman leaves her vulnerable to legal manipulation and criminal exploitation. And sometimes she doesn’t act in her own best interest, either. She pursues one handsome, charming man through countless arguments and disappointments. (How do you say, “He’s just not that into you” in Mandarin?)
Meanwhile, world wars blaze away — strangely far away. For all its bulk, “The Valley of Amazement” offers little historical detail outside its own cloistered world. But Shanghai rockets into the future, spoiling the elegant courtesan business with crude Western expectations of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. This is all exciting and harrowing — and sometimes even funny, in an exasperated “Oh, what fresh hell is this” kind of way. One section reads like a Chinese version of “Cold Comfort Farm” with bad sex. There are also hilariously detailed instructions on how to tell a story to men, how to get them to fall in love, how to nickname their private parts and how to manage the “Nine Urges” (seven more than I knew about). Even some of Violet’s relations with clients take on a zany rom-com vibe before plunging back into abuse.
Violet’s flat, affectless voice can portray events in stark detail, but it can also seem false. That problem arises early when you’d expect a fiery girl who is kidnapped, beaten and sold into sex slavery to exhibit far more emotional timbre. As the novel moves along, this seems as much a problem of characterization as of plotting. Violet may say she’s devastated or filled with rage, but when she suffers some truly life-shattering losses, she shows as much distress as I feel about losing a sock. She seems to forget — sometimes for years — what’s been done to her. That dillydallying only lengthens what’s already a long novel, which is extended even further by a hundred pages of largely unneeded background dropped near the end. Narrated by Violet’s mother, this section is meant to establish all kinds of interesting parallels with Violet’s life, but the fact that it’s delivered in exactly the same voice is one distracting parallel too many.
“The Valley of Amazement” is never dull — there’s far too much sex, suffering and intrigue for that — but it’s wearisome. We deserve more enlightenment for surviving this ordeal with Violet. Her travails should deliver us to a place we couldn’t have imagined at the start.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles. On Nov. 15, Amy Tan will speak at Strathmore in Bethesda. For more information or to buy tickets, call 301-581-5100 or visit Strathmore.org.
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT
By Amy Tan
Ecco. 589 pp. $29.99