Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shanghai a frustrating character

  • Print

It's both a cliche and a compliment to declare a novel's setting is a character in the story -- so vividly evoked, so active an agent, it takes its rightful place alongside the other characters.

Doubtless, reviewers from East to West will name Shanghai as a character in Malaysian-born Tash Aw's glittering new novel, Five Star Billionaire, and they'll be both right and wrong.

Shanghai is responsible for some of Billionaire's most frustrating elements -- missed connections, failures stemming from wealth disparity or overconsumption, and a bewildering rate of change.

But if Shanghai is a character, it is dangerously passive: it allows the novel's lonely protagonists to drift away from each other and for their communication to short out before it ever properly begins, lending a frustrating inertia to the story's principal relationships.

The latest in a spate of novels exploring urban success in Asia (Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians), Billionaire tracks the paths of five Malaysian migrant workers building lives in mainland China.

Phoebe is a factory girl who moves to Shanghai to pursue success in love and work, only to find herself jobless and friendless in a city full of thousands of Phoebes. Her situation is oddly echoed in that of Justin, the eldest son of a family real estate dynasty who buckles under the unforgiving momentum of Shanghai's business community.

Also buckling is Gary, a Malaysian pop star driven by his agents to embody and fulfil the desires of China's consuming masses, until his idol image begins to crack with the strain. Yinghui, loved unrequitedly by Justin in another life, is moving swiftly upward, brokering business deals with Shanghai's cr®me de la cr®me, and trying hard not to look back on the past.

This is London-based Aw's third novel, following 2009's Map of the Invisible World and his acclaimed 2005 debut, The Harmony Silk Factory.

In Billionaire, he gives his characters chapters in turn, which lends the novel its episodic quality. Connecting the narrative strands is the novel's fifth character and "five star billionaire," Walter Chao, whose hokey business aphorisms and personal reflections form a kind of caulk between the other chapters. Eventually, his influence will touch the lives of each of Billionaire's characters, for good or ill.

While Billionaire occasionally feels like the screenplay for a cynical Hollywood ensemble comedy, Aw's ability to manage such a panoply of characters, and hold each of them in tension to the others, is evidence of his technical skill. None of its protagonists lends Billionaire any more or less narrative drive than the others, and the novel's structure allows all five narrative strains to unfold at an equal pace.

Despite their differences, Billionaire's cast shares a slew of weaknesses: lust for Shanghai's promise of power, desire to save face and fulfil expectations regardless of personal expense and crippling pride, which slowly annihilates their secret hopes for lasting community.

Like its protagonists, Five Star Billionaire's reach is sometimes greater than its grasp, but the novel's fluctuating themes of ambition, desire and loneliness offer both a lament to the fragmentation of the city, and a tribute to Shanghai's shifting skyline -- and its promise of freedom.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Lauren Bacall 'loved' working in Canada

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 110621 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 -  Doug Chorney, president Keystone Agricultural Producers flight over South Western Manitoba to check on the condition of farming fields. MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
my2011poy
  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What do you think of the new Blue Bombers uniforms?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google