Thursday, January 5, 2012

Emotional vs Logical Readings

I've been thinking about how there are countless ways to react to a book. We can love people in our lives though we find them loaded with faults and we can know someone who seems to be a saint but find them insufferable. So it goes with books.

Two weeks ago I read Lisa See's book Shanghai Girls. While reading this novel, a rational list of faults kept getting checked: overuse of cliches, oversimplistic historical analysis, often flat one-dimensional characters. Yet I was completely transfixed by it. I read the book in just two days and was fascinated by the sweep and scope of the story. But my rational mind kept yelling at me to STOP and that the book was a waste of time. And in many ways it was.

The novel tells the story of two sisters, born and raised in Shanghai, and how the civil war and Japanese invasion in particular, change their lives forever. From a wealthy and influential family, they soon realize the harsh realities of life when their father loses all his money and they are forced to flee the city. Eventually, they end up in Los Angeles where they have to adjust being at the bottom of the heap both economically and culturally. They experience 1940s prejudices and live under the watchful eye of an authoritarian patriarch who keeps all their money and gives them very little control. Yet slowly they flourish in their forced marriages, both breaking out and learning to adjust to their lot if not quite happily then with some resignation.

The characters do change and develop and the relationship between the sisters is really the emotional glue that holds the story together. But the book is clearly written from a modern-day point of view and the author puts words and ideas into Pearl's head that are clearly her own early 21st century perspective. This is galling and irritating at times. There are other problems as well, but the overriding issue was that I continued to read and, in fact, enjoyed reading, though I was having so many critical issues with the book. Why?

While reading this book, I came across Ruiyan Xu's 2011 novel The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai. As soon as I started into this book (immediately after finishing the See novel), I had the opposite reaction: my list of critical check boxes were all flying through without a hit, excellent character development, complex, multi-layered story, believable dialogue, etc. And acknowledging the complexities of life and trauma. The story opens just before a huge explosion in a Shanghai hotel severely injures Lijing, a successful (and wealthy) stock broker. As he comes to in the hospital, his wife is told that he has lost his ability to speak and soon it becomes clear that it's his ability to speak Mandarin which has been compromised. He can still speak English, minimal and difficult though it is. Soon an American brain specialist is sent to China to work with Lijing to recover his Chinese and this is really the heart of the story: the interaction between the doctor and the patient.

Even in a brief description the Xu novel is apparently more interesting and more complex. Yet I had such a hard time connecting to this work. I did, and I ultimately finished the book though it took me a good week to do so. But it made me think about this reaction which should be (a loaded phrase, I realize) the opposite. Shouldn't the critically complex and more interesting work be more appealing to the one that got my back up? Or maybe should misses the point.

One interesting aspect to both works: Shanghai Girls is told from the perspective a Chinese woman but it's told by an American writer who's only distantly Chinese (her grandfather was half Chinese or something). Lost and Forgotten is told (largely) from the point of view of a white American (and the fact that she's white is important) though the author herself is Chinese American and came to the US as a young girl. This is something I've noticed a good deal of the last few years: authors telling a story through the guise of someone who may not reflect their background or culture. Of course this has always been done to some extent but I think of Daniel Allen Cox's book Krakow Melt which s told from the point of view of a Pole (though Cox is a Montrealer) and Clark Blaise who wrote an entire collection of short stories (The Meager Tarmac) from the points of view of Indians or Indian-Americans. It seems to me that this would have been quite difficult 15 or 20 years ago since writing about "other" cultural points of view on the part of Western writers would have been seen as terribly colonial. 

But the bigger question is why we can connect emotionally to works that critically we react against? This doesn't happen all the time (or perhaps often even) though when it does, it underscores the fact that reading (or watching a movie, etc.) is at its heart an emotional experience and no matter how much rational thought we bring to the experience, emotions win out.

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