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.