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 BOOK REVIEWS


 

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #22 (May 27-June 2, 2003), page 17.

Just one thing wrong

Fixer Chao

By Han Ong

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001

Hardcover, 377 pages, $25.00

By Josephine Bridges

Fixer Chao may be the only Asian-American coming-of-age story in which the protagonist has a history of freelancing in the menís room at New Yorkís Port Authority.

"I need an Oriental," frustrated Jewish writer Shem C. tells gay Filipino American William Paulinha, "because this thing, this Feng Shui, is the province of an Oriental. And Iíve looked. Iíve looked and havenít found anyone who can go as low as youíve gone." Paulinha quips, "He made it sound like a compliment," but agrees to play the role of a mysterious Chinese Feng Shui expert in Shem C.ís elaborate scheme of revenge against the elite who have scorned him. In the guise of "Master Chao," Paulinhaís assignment is to advise clients referred by Shem C. on arranging their homes so as to bring them peace, harmony, and prosperity. With a twist. Paulinha must do "just one thing wrong."

Thanks to Han Ongís astonishing attention to detail, Paulinhaís moral quandary is hyper-real and riveting. "We went to a bar called the Gutter Ball," he writes. "Above the entrance were neon bowling pins that kept getting knocked down by a ball that came out of nowhere. The pins fell backward like drunken men, but a moment later, they were upright again, asking to be struck. Again the ball appeared, ready to oblige. This continued into eternity."

The author of several critically acclaimed plays, Ong writes delicious dialogue unencumbered by quotation marks. This fragment of conversation characterizes the uneasy alliance between Shem C. and Paulinha:

Philippines, he pronounced, making it sound fictional. That a place?

Country.

Wow.

Well I wouldnít go that far.

You being sarcastic?

Duh.

Listen. Donít make fun of me. His tone was hurt.

Ongís exploration of the immigrantís consciousness is a refreshing and enlightening aspect of Fixer Chao. When Paulinha visits a fellow immigrant in the hospital, he notes that she looks "waylaid, diminished. It was the same look of people conditioned by having to wait in line, slouching in the corridors of anonymous-making institutions before passing through door after door to get endless forms stamped." Paulinaís dream, he reminds himself, was "to resemble everyone else, and avoid being singled out for ridicule, the immigrantís fear of embarrassment enlarged out of all proportion."

There is no shortage of caustic commentary on the wealthy, powerful, and beautiful people duped by the phony Feng Shui master. Told she must burn her sonís shirt, a client "demonstrated her comic privilege by unsuccessfully trying to start a fire." Attending a ceremony as Master Chao to receive "yet another award from yet another womenís fashion magazine," Paulinha observes that, "Even the black female rapper who won for Sexiest Album Cover was tearfully invoking the name of Her Savior."

Han Ong skewers the genteel bigotry of the upper class toward Asian Americans, several of whom may be under the impression that they had entered its lofty ranks. Among the guests at a party given by Suzy Yamada are both Master Chao and the novelist Paul Chan Chuang Toledo Lin, but this doesnít stop book editor Cardie Kerchpoff from declaiming, "if youíve never talked to some- one not from this country about things like that, things which weíve already acculturated to, little you know, whatís that word, nuances!, little nuances, my God, if youíve never tried to explain American nuances or Western nuances to a Third Worlder, are you in for a marathon!"

Paulinha is a likeable, believable narrator in part because he is no stranger to his own character deficits and the toll they are bound to exact. "Beware the life you earn," he admonishes at the very beginning of the novel. Indeed, reading Fixer Chao can be an unsettling experience, not unlike watching a spider devour a fly. You may want to look away and discover that you canít.

 

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