31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 4: “Red Rose, White Rose” by Eileen Chang

May 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Love in a Fallen City (Karen S. Kingsbury, trans.)

In terms of literary sensibility, Eileen Chang (probably most famous to Western audiences for penning the novella that provided the inspiration for Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution) could hardly be farther removed from Barry Hannah. From a thematic perspective, however, Chang’s 1947 story “Red Rose, White Rose” chimes unexpectedly with Hannah’s admittedly more aggressive “Rat-Faced Auntie.” Both stories concern male protagonists who are involved in power struggles with various women in their lives. In Chang’s case, however, the gender dynamics are complicated by the societal strictures of Shanghai in the 1940s. The author, who would eventually flee China to escape the Communist influx, writes about love and lust in the context of a powerfully restrictive social hierarchy, employing a style that has been cheekily called “boudoir realism.”

The man at the centre of “Red Rose, White Rose” is Zhenbao Tong, a professional (he works as an administrator at a textile factory) who cycles through a number of love affairs before settling into an arranged marriage that spirals downward into a kind of domestic hell.

Zhenbao’s erotic history is tainted by a patriarchal society that has inculcated in him the notion that he must “master” the women in his life; this is coupled with a warped idealism that violently abuts an intractable Madonna/whore complex which he carries around like an albatross. In the opening paragraphs of the story, we are told that Zhenbao’s two most significant romantic entanglements – Jiaorui Wang, a married woman whom he lures away from her husband then unceremoniously abandons, and Meng Yanli, his eventual wife – represent the roses of the title: red for “the passionate mistress,” and white for the “spotless wife.” However, the “logical and thorough” aspect that makes him “the ideal modern Chinese man” also ensures that there is no way he can accept any woman on her own terms. Zhenbao has an almost Platonic conception of his ideal mate, and anyone who falls short is doomed to misery: “If he did bump into something that was less than ideal, he bounced it around in his mind for a while and – poof! – it was idealized: then everything fell into place.”

Zhenbao’s pathology is set early in his young adulthood when, as a student, he travels to Paris and has an encounter with a prostitute. “[T]hough he could spend money on her,” Zhenbao discovers, “he couldn’t be her master.” Zhenbao’s lack of control over the circumstances of his Parisian tryst fills him with shame and sets him on the course that will dictate the rest of his life. “From that day on, Zhenbao was determined to create a world that was ‘right,’ and to carry it with him wherever he went. In that little pocket-sized world of his, he was the absolute master.”

The problem with this, of course, is that it denies anyone else in Zhenbao’s life the right of self-determination. When he meets Jiaorui, who is the wife of his friend and landlord in Shanghai, he is attracted to her largely because she is unavailable to him. He flirts with her in an increasingly brazen manner, only to lose interest once she has actually given herself over to him. In this regard, Jiaorui resembles Rose, Zhenbao’s “first love,” who is the object of his desire so long as she keeps herself chaste. When she succumbs to his advances, he rejects her because he insists on conducting the relationship on his terms: “Rose’s body leapt out of her clothes, leapt onto his body, but he was his own master. Afterward, even he was surprised by his self-control. He’d hardened his heart and taken Rose home.”

Yanli, the white rose, is in some respects the diametric opposite of Rose and Jiaorui: devoted and meek, she bears Zhenbao a child, ignores his dalliances with prostitutes, and makes excuses for him to the guests who stop by to visit: “Zhenbao always gets the short end of the stick – he’s so good to people, so sincere, and then he’s the one who suffers!” Only when he suspects that Yanli may be carrying on an affair with a local tailor – that is, assuming some degree of agency over her own life – does his temper flare up and manifest itself in a display of violence.

At its heart, Chang’s story is about power: who wields it, who wants it, and the price that is exacted when one takes it. This is unsurprising in the context of 1940s China, and it is equally unsurprising that the sexual power struggle is overlaid by the idea of a class struggle. When Zhenbao and Jiaorui encounter an Englishwoman Zhenbao knew as a student in Edinburgh, the economic undercurrent bubbles up to the surface: “Jiaorui could see at a glance that in going home mother and daughter would be headed straight into the English lower middle class.” In presenting the conflict between a tradition-bound older society and a rapidly modernizing new one, Chang stakes out a place for herself as a sort of distaff Eurasian equivalent to Henry James. Her style may be quiet and unassuming, but Chang’s story nevertheless carries a strikingly subversive aspect that feels startlingly fresh some sixty-five years after it first appeared.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 3: “Rat-Faced Auntie” by Barry Hannah

May 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories

For the poet and critic Al Alvarez, true appreciation of a work of literature is “not about [gleaning] information, although you may gather information along the way. It’s not about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures.” It’s about listening to a voice “unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communicating with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way.”

Real writers, like one’s real friends, don’t quite sound like anyone else: they can only be who they inimitably are, their single most praiseworthy quality. The reason so many people are boring is because they all tend to sound the same. The same, sadly, can be said for much of what masquerades as literature.

– Ray Robertson, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live

Of course, the more individual a writer’s voice is – the more iconoclastic or idiosyncratic or eccentric – the less familiar, the less comfortable, and therefore less palatable it may appear to a reading public that wants nothing more than cozy reassurances and the reinforcement of well-worn preconceptions. This is arguably one reason why Barry Hannah, one of the most stylistically inventive, linguistically effervescent American writers of the late 20th century, is so woefully underappreciated today. His jazzy prose style and pervading themes – violence, heroism, drinking, sex – echo Hemingway, Kerouac, Burroughs, and other influences, but Hannah’s literary voice is sui generis. As Michael Schaub puts it, “The man wrote the way Django Reinhardt played guitar — you have to experience it to believe it, and even then, you’re not entirely sure how the hell he pulled it off. He was an American original, a bona fide Southern hell-raiser with the voice of a drunk angel, shot full of the world’s best good.”

“Hannah himself,” writes Marianne Wiggins, “… goes out of his way to lead us to believe he is a hard-writing, hard-drinking, hard-balling man,” and a version of this character is on display in “Rat-Faced Auntie,” about Edgar, a jazz trombonist who achieves early fame but succumbs to an alcohol addiction that leaves him destitute and beholden to his “homely and bellicose” rich Auntie Hadley. It is perhaps not necessary to know that the collection in which “Rat-Faced Auntie” first appeared, 1993’s Bats Out of Hell, was the first book Hannah published after giving up drinking – it is never a good idea to identify a writer’s life and work too closely – but this fact does appear to jump out in light of the story’s fixation on the difficulties associated with full recovery from a lifestyle of committed dissolution.

Edgar’s sobriety did curious things to him. For one thing, he had not realized he was tall. His posture was still poor, though, having been curved over in search of the pavement all those years. He had blood and air in him again, and was still a bit high on withdrawal. His face was plumper, unblotched, his hearing and eyesight better. However, he had the impression he looked suddenly older, thrown forward into his forties at thirty-four. He had intimations that he would die soon, and must hurry.

Edgar’s aunt goes out of her way to mock her nephew by comparing him to heroic figures from history who, she says, “drank for good reasons”:

Look at Grant and Churchill with their great works. Look at Poe and Faulkner and Jack London and their masterpieces. Now you’ve got a national curse of drugs and drink, millions of nobodies who never once had a great day or a fine thought. This puny selfism, uff! It seems to me you became a drunkard just for lack of something to do.

Hadley’s assessment is unfair because by the time he arrives to live off her avails, Edgar has had many “a great day” as a trombone player in Peets Lambert’s Big Thunder Hounds. But newly sober and having returned to college to study sociology, Edgar is nevertheless frankly ineffectual, scrambling around for material to fill out a vaguely defined thesis on Chicago’s “bums” and lusting after married faculty members’ wives at parties. He displays none of the heroism of the statesmen or writers his aunt throws in his face as paragons.

Thomas Ærvold Bjerre claims that the story “focuses on heroism and art,” and this is true to some extent. But in its depiction of a washed up ex-musician who is utterly beholden to his odious, hideously ugly aunt for money and validation – she provides him with a BMW motorcycle as a symbol of his ravaged manhood – “Rat-Faced Auntie” is almost a parody of a certain kind of brazen masculinity. Edgar displays a great deal of surface machismo and braggadocio, but he is utterly dependent upon the women in his life – his Auntie Hadley and his girlfriend, Emma Dean. When he and Emma fall into an argument late in the story, she compares him derisively to the soldiers fighting to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army during the first Gulf War: “Our generals, our airmen – they’re men, and you, you don’t have … moxie.” Emma’s complete emasculation of Edgar is achieved with the hurled insult, “You ungrateful bitch!”

Edgar is able to emerge victorious – albeit physically incapacitated – by the story’s close, the power dynamic having shifted precipitously between him on one side and the two women on the other. Edgar finally spurns Emma and agrees to write his aunt’s life story, to which he appends a scabrous title that leaves him “so happy, so profoundly, almost, delirious.” He imagines the book he will compose in terms that could easily describe Barry Hannah’s own writing: “Loud and bright and full of jazz.”