Late in Tinling Choong’s GRD ’07 novel “FireWife,” Nin, an Asian-American woman who has recently left her corporate job in an attempt at self-discovery, finds herself having an existential crisis: Should she or shouldn’t she cheat on her husband? “An inner voice whispering in [her] ears” explains that, “Some cherries are like fish, some are sweet, some are muskier than the abdominal sac of a male musk deer, don’t think, be yourself, eat … To eat or not to eat?”
A doctoral student in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, Choong released her first novel in January. It has been well-received by such luminaries as Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom, who called it “as poignantly poetic as it is compelling narrative.”
But as the passage above demonstrates, Choong struggles throughout the entire book to make language in general — and the sexual metaphor in particular — powerful enough to sustain our interest in characters and situations about which she provides only cursory information. Unfortunately, the language is never up to the task, and in the end we just don’t care.
As messy as it is frustrating, Choong’s book is more of a study in lyrical invention than a novel. When the initial pull of its linguistic strangeness wears off, the claustrophobic nature of the narrative’s structure reveals itself. Framed within a ghost story and a creation myth, the major story line chronicles Nin’s travels around the world photographing women whose sexuality has in some way silenced them. This could have been compelling and revelatory.
Instead, the book reads like a collage devoid of any holistic integrity, and subplots constantly compete with each other. It shifts back and forth from one episode to the next at a dizzying speed, and in the process we lose all sense of the larger narrative. The miscellany of women Nin meets are treated at only the most superficial level, so rather than promoting a discovery of silenced voices, “FireWife” functions in the same way as the worldview it attempts to criticize. It hides what should be showcased.
Choong expects her language to sustain us through this chaos, and at times it can bear the weight. Early in the book, Nin sees a picture of her sister, who drowned in a well of tapioca mud when the two were children. “In the photo, her mouth and nostrils were stuffed stiff with white mud … And every night, I plunged into the tapioca mud well voluntarily, quietly, maturely, after I closed the moist lids of my eyes. The plunge was always muddily white, dreamy, heavy, wet, pure, guilty. The white tapioca mud would enter my nostrils and throat … stay and grow fat.”
Here, the scenario is inventively and beautifully rendered, and Choong raises fascinating questions about the power of photography. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel refuses to take up the issues this passage insists upon, even though Nin’s entire trip has a photographic aim.
This lack of detailed and continued examination plagues the entire novel. The book is full of individual moments of great beauty, but they are not tied together in any coherent fashion. And, in the end, stylistic innovation and evocative episodes do not sufficiently overcome the sense of frustration which the rest of the novel engenders. Rather than explore her dense material, Choong merely compiles it.