Shang­hai a frus­trat­ing char­ac­ter

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

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 crème de la crème, 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.

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