Beauty Christine Chiu Santa Fe Writers Project May 2020 ISBN: 9781733777759 PB: $15.95 276 pages Order now!
There was an essay in The Guardian a couple years ago by Scottish novelist William Boyd that made a case for the whole-life novel and its appeal with both authors and readers alike.
These kinds of novels that track the life of a character from youth on into their later years are not uncommon, but they go in and out of style in different periods and literary traditions. A favorite of mine is Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which Boyd mentioned. Writing to a largely British audience, Boyd threw out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as another example.
As readers, we’re also intimately familiar with our own life story, which is a similar sort of arc to the whole-life novel, if we’re old enough.
“As we read (one of these novels), we can construct, if you like, the parallel novel of our own complete existence or, if we’re young, at least postulate and prefigure how such a story might unspool and be recorded,” Boyd writes. “It gives the total life novel a powerful extra-literary frisson. It can be very beguiling for both the writer and the reader.”
This is quite different from some other novels like Ulysses, with a plot stretching just a day’s length, or for an even more compact example, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, with a plot that takes place over the span of the main character’s lunch break spent buying a pair of shoelaces.
In some ways, Christine Chiu’s new novel Beauty gives us the best of both of these worlds. We get to see her main character, Amy Wong, grow and have the world that she lives in change dramatically from when she’s a teenager, navigating childhood family dynamics and coming of age, on through to her entry as a woman into New York’s exclusive fashion world with all its intrigue and then on into her older years. We get to see all of the struggles that come with these life transitions, often dealing with abusive men, work challenges, and family life. But we see it in lyrical bursts, chapters, or, more accurately, sections, that leave the connective tissue for the reader to intuit.
It’s a smart approach for this type of novel and leaves the reader slightly jarred but in a good, intentional way, where we’re maybe as disoriented as our narrator but also spellbound by the storytelling.
We may not be dealing with shoelaces like in Baker’s novel, but we’re sometimes dealing with shoes. Chiu, by the way, in real life is a shoe designer when she’s not writing and investing time and effort in the literary community. In Beauty’s second section “Bootman,” Chiu paints a sexual encounter with a young Amy and an older man who runs a shoe shop. It’s one of a few times in the novel that Chiu really shines at showing intimate relationships and does it with a highly nuanced sex scene. It’s not just about the act itself but also the teenager processing it. The “Bootman” won’t be the only troublesome run-in Amy will have, but the writing doesn’t pass judgment in the moment with an author’s voice butting in. Readers are given a chance to draw their connections and can compare Amy’s early life with what will come later and see whatever parallels may arise. And through Amy’s growth, readers are able to explore relationships to romantic partners, and family, to culture, just like real people do in every day.
The intimacy of the tale also works great with the way Chiu sets it up with a close first person in the present tense.
Chiu’s previous book, 2001’s Troublemaker and Other Saints, was a story collection, and in this new book she’s able to do something that uses those short-form storytelling chops but also with, unquestionably, the effect of a novel. The sections, like any good whole-life novel, accrue more meaning. This keeps every turn lively, and since the turns are often big, this has just the right effect.
While all of Amy’s ages in the novel ring true, the portion that worked best for me were the last stages of the book where the reader sees how Amy has changed in the way she sees her mother and herself. In those pages, it’s also apparent how Amy’s fashion sense colors so much of the way she sees her world.
As primarily a fiction writer, it might be bias that leads me to confess that there’s probably too much autobiography and memoir being published these days relative to everything else in the literary fiction marketplace, and even a lot of the fiction now is autofiction.
This book isn’t those, or at least doesn’t have the feeling of those kinds of books. This kind of whole-life novel gives us the self-reflection and searching that publishers seem to be betting readers want in 2020-era books but does so in perhaps a better vehicle that retains all the artistic magic of the novel.
Gregory Sullivan’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, VICE Sports, The Toronto Star, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, and other places. He grew up in Georgia, worked as a newspaper journalist in Georgia and Tennessee, and completed an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University. Now, he lives and writes in North Carolina.