Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log I

September 13
45 Minutes

I don't remember exactly how long ago it was I last read this book. Close to 20 years, I think. I know I've read it two or three times, and seen the movie a couple of times as well, but it was a long time ago, so it's interesting to go back in after all of this time and see what has stuck and what will be different, now that my own frame of mind has shifted. Reading this book as a grandfather is going to be different that reading it as a son or daughter, or as a parent.

A couple of things, right off the bat.

I remember that the book was carefully structured. Four mothers, four daughters, alternating narrators, intertwining families, intertwining stories. There's something elegant about the architecture of the book, but also something artificial. I know, all books rely on artifice, but some rely on it more obviously than others. For example, June Woo, the narrator of the first chapter makes much of the fact her mother, who started the Joy Luck Club, would sit at the East position at the table. "The East is where things begin, my mother once told me, the direction from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from (33)". Well, that's three little taps with Maxwell's silver hammer right there. But just in case we weren't paying attention, the last words of the same chapter, eight pages later, are "I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin." Okay, got it. This is a book of about stories, and it's the beginning of the book, and the stories arise in the East, and the narrator is sitting in the East, where things begin. Clear it is. Subtle it's not.

Another instance: Near the end of this same chapter June is besieged by her aunties, who have just presented her with a check to pay her way back to China to locate stepsisters she has never met, and who are yammering at her about how important it is for her to find her sisters and tell them stories about their mother, from whom they were separated during the Japanese invasion of China. The aunties are afraid she won't be able to tell the stories well, so they are prompting her, feeding her ideas. So far, so good. Then out comes the silver hammer again:

And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to those closed American-born minds "joy luck" is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.
I dunno, maybe it's just me. But it seems to me that Amy Tan has got her thumb a little too obviously on the scale here. There's lots of other stuff to admire in chapter one, but the paint-by-numbers signposting of theme feels intrusive and heavy-handed to me.

Having picked on the author for that, let me point out one passage that I did find well written and instructive. June's mother is describing the realities of life in Kweilin during the time when the Joy Luck Club got started, and the criticism that the members of the club came in for who thought that the club was operating, under the circumstances, in bad taste:

"It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable. How much can you wish for a favorite warm coat that hangs in the closet of a house that burned down with your mother and father inside of it? How long can you see in your mind arms and legs hanging from telephone wires and starving dogs running down the streets with half-chewed arms dangling from their jaws? What was worse, we asked ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?" (24)
Here, the move from idea to exemplification to response is authoritative and convincing and sympathy-inducing.

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