Since finishing Brideshead Revisited in January, I find myself thinking back to it often, just musing on its complexities. I think about Catholicism and Christianity, and how God eventually calls us all to him. I think about the disenchantment of modernity and modernism. I think about the least erotic sex scene in the entire English literary canon. I think about the little shy wine (like a gazelle) and how Sebastian and Charles were definitely in love. I think about how I expected myself to hate the Marchmains, and ended up loving them a lot. I think a lot about the line, “It’s heaven with strawberries.”
In many ways, some aspects of Crazy Rich Asians rather mirror the first half of Brideshead‘s Et in Arcadia Ego. Two individuals meet at a university and come to know each other quite intimately. One is middle class, the other belongs to a much higher social tier. The rich one takes the middle-class one to his palatial family home, where the latter is compelled to interact with the eccentric family members there. Before reading either book, I expected that they would be satirical and found they were not.
Brideshead Revisited was not meant to be satirical, so I adjusted quickly.
Alas, Crazy Rich Asians lacked the grit of insight and beautiful, understated writing which Brideshead offered in lieu of satire. Possibly because it was meant to be satirical.
I probably should have realised that all the effusive praise littered on its back cover and three pages was (in the words of Shrek) compensating for something. Like my fellow classmates in the World Politics tute, Kwan manages to say a lot of stuff (about 400 pages of stuff, in fact) and ultimately mean very little, or nothing. It’s almost a shame, really. His premise is original and genuinely concerning; there is indeed a growing phenomenon of materialistic, amoral, and tastelessly bourgeois wealthy Asians. Yet, for some reason, Kwan refrains from tearing apart these disgusting people in order to pursue his boring little happy ending. Yawn. Yawn.
Emblematic of the dreariness of this novel is the apparent protagonist, Rachel Chu. I say apparent because it’s told in third person omniscient and each chapter switches people, and they’re actually all kind of boring too. But I have a particular bone to pick with Rachel Chu. She (like the other characters, I guess) has no character. We are told a lot about how she’s supposedly so “Americanised” but all I see is just the same-old cookie-cutter second-gen Asian archetype. The fact that she’s into Colin Firth movies is so cringe-worthily typical, like Kwan is not aware that women are actually not homogenous.
Rachel has no emotional depth and is unconvincingly passive about this whole what-the-h*ck-why-is-my-boyfriend-the-richest-person-in-Asia business. As, apparently, an economics professor she is strangely comfortable with the disgustingly flagrant displays of wealth into which she has been suddenly dumped. Why is she not shocked and horrified at these obvious issues of wealth disparity? Why is she not analysing how the selfishness of these people prevents trickle-down economics from being a reality? Why is she not criticising the amorality of the obvious offshore banking and tax evasion these people enjoy? Only in the last 40 pages does she finally grow a spine and sense of logic; in what should probably have been the true end of the novel, she dumps her boyfriend Nick with an uncharacteristically insightful speech about the depravity of his family. Of course, all this belated character development is ultimately bulldozed over when they get back together without sorting out these issues she raised earlier.
And indeed, the wealth is disgusting. But possibly even more disgusting was Kwan’s portrayal of it. After a while, it got a bit difficult to tell whether Kwan was trying to make fun of them or really just wanted to be them, deep down. Every three paragraphs – quite literally – Kwan would chronicle someone’s outfit or some rich person’s house with the painstaking dedication of a fourteen-year-old snipping sullen-eyed models out of their mum’s copy of Vogue to glue-stick into their diary. It was like he was doing product placements. I felt a bit ill.
Moreover, there was a confusing scene in which Nick says, “I remember there was one [traditional Malay village] nearby which we would sneak into to steal baby chickens.” Already, my brain’s alarm bells are screaming, YOU’RE WEALTHY AS FUCK, WHY ARE YOU STEALING INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S PROPERTY? (It’s also screaming about the preposition placement, but we can ignore that for now.) Rachel, soulless plank that she is, says fondly, “Little rascals!” And they have a bit of a laugh, as my incensed mind shrieks, FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHY IS STEALING FROM THE POOR BEING CONDONED?
Another morally confusing scene is the final chapter featuring Astrid, Nick’s “It Girl” cousin, who has just been dumped by her husband because of her overbearing family and her laissez-faire attitude to spending money. Astrid’s story arc had a lot of potential, and I was looking forward to her perfectly-coiffed head getting pulled out from its ostrich-grave of materialism and exposed to some real hardship. But after all the dumping and upset, she finds herself in the arms of her former boyfriend who…basically kind of demonises her husband for not being OK with her lavish lifestyle? So ultimately, she’s not compelled to learn about how there’s more to life than fancy dresses. Hugely disappointing.
Actually, all of the characters are irritatingly one-dimensional, little more than walking clothes racks. There are, for one, way too many to be fleshed out properly, like one of those Marvel superhero mashup movies. They are also predictable; most of the women characters are essentially a homogenous mass of natural beauty, designer clothes, and shallowness. Furthermore, the focus on the character of Eddie was bizarrely unnecessary; he added ultimately nothing to the plot other than being a bit of a shit, and petered out mysteriously halfway through the last part.
Overall, the writing in and of itself was pretty bad. Kwan is exceptional in that he may be the only person on this planet to not have had the Holy Mantra of Creative Writing, show don’t tell, drilled into his brain from birth (or at least Year 2). The novel is a lesson in Writing for Simpletons. There are some wonderfully tautological lines such as, “…he screamed, feeling the pressure building in his head,” and “…was having a heated conversation with her daughter…she fumed”. There’s evidence of Poor Research, as evident with his claim that the British accent was common in Hong Kong – undeniably the words of a man who has never been to Hong Kong, or has no idea what a British accent sounds like. There are lines which are so bad it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re meant to be satirical, such as this exemplar: Rachel looks at a Venus of Milo replica and literally thinks that “maybe someone should chop off her arms too. Maybe she would feel better” – honestly, what the fuck does that mean? Not to mention this gem: “Dongguan Prison. Even the name sounded ominous” – oh I don’t know, maybe because its name literally has the word “prison” in it??????
Unfortunately for us, not only has Kwan not had show don’t tell drilled into his brain, the people who “educated” him clearly replaced that mantra with said is dead. So we are graced with a smorgasbord of speech tags: “ventured”, “added”, “seethed”, “countered”, “mused”, “chided”, “boasted”, “reported”, “declared”, “complained”…and when a “said” was truly necessary, he just had to spice it up a bit. “Said saucily.”
Not only does his expression leave much to be desired, I also found spelling and grammatical errors. For example, when describing the sound of a gong, he writes, “A melodious peel [sic] rang through the room.” I saw mandarin peels flying across the hallway in my mind’s eye. He (and his editor) are also obviously unaware of the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”, as it seemed not to rake on their grammatical conscience that he had used the former when he meant the latter.
That’s not to say that everything in the book was total shite. I did quite enjoy the snippets of Cantonese, the homage to the culture of the Asian matriarch (replete with Thatcher-style perm), and the accurate description about the predictability of second-gen Asian boys. But let’s be real, that’s really not quite enough to convince me to like this book after the grief it gave me in all those areas above – and all the other horrid bits I couldn’t fit in here. It lacked complexity. It lacked coherence. It lacked closure. It lacked commentary.
It lacked enjoyment, really.
TL;DR – if you want a quality book on rich people, read Brideshead Revisited and recycle Crazy Rich Asians.