Jeff Twitchell: Preface for David Wong Louie’s Pangs of Love
As one might expect from a first published collection, David Wong Louie’s Pangs of Love (1991) is somewhat eclectic; nevertheless, there is a readily identifiable dominant style running throughout. This style is basically realist, but is constantly disrupted by the surreal or off-beat, giving a sense of imminent disaster or collapse without ever actually going over the edge. This general style of short story can be traced back to John Cheever, who is mentioned in passing in one of Louie’s stories, although probably more significant are the very influential stories of Raymond Carver. Louie’s writing is always polished with nervous humor emotionally distancing the characters as well as the reader from the underlying “pangs.” Most of the characters, particularly those of the younger generation with whom the author himself clearly identifies, live suburban or urban lives, are well educated and reasonably comfortable economically. Nonetheless, all the stories depict personal lives littered with broken relationships: divorce or failed relationships, miscommunication between parents and children, and a general disconnection between people. The narratives themselves tend to be disconnected, a series of loosely related scenes or vignettes, with at best tentative conclusions that precariously hint or gesture at a momentary connection. This self-consciously stylized type of short story typifies a good many important American writers of the past several decades, and effectively expresses a postmodern anxiety underlying the superficial success of contemporary American life.
Inevitably at the time this collection was first published, Louie was presented to the public as a representative of the new up and coming generation of Asian-American writers. However, taken as a whole Louie seems somewhat uneasy with the implications of being categorized as an Asian- American author–four of the eleven of the stories have no Asian-American characters, in several others ethic identity seems of little significance, and in virtually all of them the younger generation appears thoroughly assimilated into American society. Nonetheless, Louie has arranged the collection so that the first and last couple of stories, as well as the title piece, do put relatively more stress on Chinese-American themes. I would suggest, though, that the Chinese-American theme of “displacement,” to take up the suggestion of one of the stories’ title, is seen as a general condition of all the American characters in the volume: the sense of being uprooted and never quite fitting in with the society in which they find themselves. The sense of “difference” characteristic of ethnic minorities is here generalized into a universal condition where no one any longer feels at home and no one seems to be able to communicate with others. On the other hand, Louie is also sensitive to the irony that in a world of such powerful homogenizing forces, individuals desperately hold onto any sense of difference and individuality. “Warming Trends” has no Asian-American characters or themes, aside from passing mention of Connie Chung (a famous “breakthrough” Chinese American newswoman for one of the major TV networks) and that the main character’s favorite food is egg foo yung. Yet Hank the protagonist is displaced: he has been laid off his job, which he tries to turn into something positive by seeing it as making him “different,” and is dangerously over-weight, no longer fitting into his clothes and is forbidden to eat his favorite foods or to smoke. Out of sorts, reduced to staying at home while his wife works and unable to communicate with his daughter, in all senses of the word Hank does not fit into his world which he imagines as full of lurking dangers and terrors that threaten his daughter and wife whenever they venture outdoors. However, in this story, as the title indicates, there are warming trends as Hank comically and unexpectedly moves toward a sense of companionship with his daughter’s punk boyfriend and finally with his daughter as well. In the final moment of the story, Hank hugs his daughter for comfort while simultaneously “let[ting] her go” that is, realizing that a father cannot over-protect his children indefinitely and must accept that they have their own lives to live for better or worse.
The three stories “Displacement,” “Pangs of Love” and “Inheritance” represent fairly typical Asian-American works in that they highlight ethnic differences as well as intergenerational tensions between the immigrant parents and Americanized children. As so often in Asian-American literature, it is particularly the immigrant women who maintain the strongest ties with the home country. Mrs. Chow in “Displacement” only reluctantly comes to accept that she will never return to China and to embrace the land of exile. In the title story, the mother refuses to learn English, although she nonetheless enjoys American TV, and constantly badgers her sons to take a trip to Hong Kong to shop for brides. She is unable to perceive that one of her sons is gay. The situation of such characters is in a sense emblematized by the pun in the title story: Pangs refers both to the family name of the main characters as well as to heartache.
Perhaps the oddest story is the one that initially appears most Chinese, “Disturbing the Universe,” but soon enough all such assumptions are turned on their head. I wonder what Chinese readers will make of this story. What apparently begins as a realistic account of the construction of the Great Wall, symbol both of China’s power and oppression, mischievously transforms itself into an American story after all since the strange game that is described is in fact America’s national game: baseball. The four pillows named after the four elements are actually the bases and the “orb” is the baseball with the traditional red stitching suggesting the character ren (people)–together forming a comic image of the universe as a game of baseball. Louie even includes a punning allusion in the name of the great batsman, Reji, meaning “hot Chicken” in Chinese, but pronounced in English clearly suggests Reggie Jackson, one of the greatest home run hitters of the 1970s and 80s. When one of the commissioners shouts “Kai” at a pitch, he is actually calling a strike, which are conventionally recorded as “K”s. This invention of America”s national game thousands of years before the invention of America itself introduces more democratic values or at least a non-oppressive view that is disruptive to the universe of traditional China–the workers are momentarily relieved from their forced labor while the game is in process, which upsets the Wall itself. Worse still, when the orb-ball lands outside the Wall, it apparently awakens and draws forward the barbarian forces, who represent ideas and desires the Wall has attempted to contain. The Chinese laborers begin to have thoughts and dreams the Wall has attempted to keep out.
A number of the other stories also venture well beyond realism. “One Man’s Hysteria” is a typical example of the metafiction common during the 1960s and 70s where the border between the “reality” of the writing and of the outside world is systematically blurred so that we can no longer decide which is the actual reality. This is not merely a matter of clever playfulness since literature is intimately concerned with the inseparability of the real and wish fulfillment. The desire to control the real in a world experienced as threatening or unpredictable manifests itself in some of the more fantastic elements of the stories. In “Bottles of Beaujolais,” the epigraph from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream indicates that the protagonist’s desires and daydreams will determine the course of the narrative as it becomes progressively more fantastic. The protagonist’s control over the weather of the otter’s environment represents his wish to play god and realize his fantasies, but the story concludes with him realizing that with the dawn the weather will break and he must wake up to reality. A similarly curious mechanism appears in “Pangs of Love,” in which the narrator is a creator of scents that can have powerful psychological effects. At one point it is suggested that a scent is being developed for the homeless that will give them the allusion of living in comfort. At the end of the story, the narrator hopes to overcome the misunderstanding and unhappiness among his family through a pill that changes all bitterness into sweetness. In this world that seems plagued by alienation and uncertainty, Louie gently satirizes our wish for an easy fix, some prescription or invention that will solve the problems of a complicated existence.
Taken at face value, Louie depicts a rather bleak picture of America’s people rather desperately seeking love and security in a world that is disconnected and threatening. Yet Louie’s vision is much more nuanced than that since the stories are shot through with moments of contact and humor. The “pangs” of the title suggests these sudden sharp moments of feeling which may ache and remain isolated, yet are enough for the characters to continue searching.
***Writer: Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas received his doctorate from Duke University (1987) and taught at Shandong Normal University and Nanjing University from 1987-1992, and subsequently in Taiwan and Singapore. He currently lives in Bellinzona, Switzerland, primarily working on modernist American poetry and occasionally translating contemporary Chinese poetry.