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Review: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan (CB Editions, 2014)

Title: Things to Make and Break
Author: May-Lan Tan
Publisher: CB Editions
Publication Date: February 2014

Cover art.
[Disclaimer: I obtained a review e-copy of this book at no cost.]

May-Lan Tan’s debut collection of short stories comprises sordid, gut-wrenching narratives told in compellingly hypnotic prose. The description provided for the titular character in “Julia K.” is just as applicable to Tan’s writing itself: “Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of Christ.”

Tan’s transnational background also colours the tone of the book somewhat. The daughter of parents from Dutch-controlled Indonesia, Tan grew up in British Hong Kong, before moving to northern California and then London, where she now lives. The stories in this collection take place everywhere, with people from everywhere, like the protagonist of “Candy Glass,” a Hollywood star whose parents were East German refugees, or the prickly Bay Area Korean American narrator whose failed relationships with her boyfriend and her sister form the meat of “101.”

Destructive and abortive attempts at establishing human connections tie together the broken men and women of Tan’s eleven short stories. “Every one of his exes has a thing—they’ve been molested or are a cellist or something,” the obsessive narrator of the first story, “Legendary,” begins. “Holly shattered seventeen bones falling from a trapeze.” Sex and family, ideally sources of intimacy and comfort, are repackaged here as places of alienation and trauma.

While Tan’s stories are set in the ~real world~, their plots—like the ritualistic crucifixion of an exotic dancer—strain the reader’s understanding of mimesis. This, combined with Tan’s propensity for narration in the first person, can occasionally be frustrating. The unprepared reader may at times find the collection difficult to get into, with “Legendary” being about a woman methodically stalking her partner’s exes to satisfy a need for—empathy? understanding? Some strange, lonely fate for the host of strange, lonely dramatis personae that wend their way through Things to Make and Break.

“Date Night,” the second story in the collection, is my favourite because it crystallises the themes of movement, familial disaffection, and impotent desire that run through the book. It’s set in the Hong Kong of the author’s childhood, with the narrator a nine-year-old left alone at home with the new Indonesian maid, while her neurotic mother hops alcoholically about town with a suitor.

It may be the Southeast Asian in me, but this story struck very close to home, literally and figuratively. The other stories in this collection are a lot more cynical about the possibility of emotional fulfilment, even in supposedly happy endings. “Candy Glass” closes with the actress imagining a future for her stunt double, a stealth trans woman:

“I picture her living in a two-story duplex, sugar maples growing in a shared front yard heaped in gold light and red leaves,” Alexa says. “…She might be working as a bank teller. She’ll be dating by now. I imagine a slightly overweight divorcé with soft, fat fingers and pretty eyes, who teaches science at the high school. He has a young son and daughter who come to stay with him every other weekend, and he doesn’t want to have any more children. He washes his car every Sunday, and his favorite expression is What the hey.”

Compared with the bland bourgeoisie of American suburbia, the domestic worker Davy’s longing for reunion with her lover Farah imbued “Date Night” with a note of hope that felt absent from the hardened plots about childhood sexual abuse (“Laurens”) or the fraternal exploitation of the same amnesiac girl (“DD-MM-YY”). Trauma tugs down on the edges of Things to Make and Break, and like its world-weary characters, the reader has to snatch comfort where they can find it.

Get the book online: Amazon | CB Editions

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