By Ho Lin
Whither the great modern Shanghai novel? Beijing has its writers of the moment with Ma Jian and Wang Shuo, who capture the ferocity and irony that infect China’s capital. Shanghai is a tougher nut to crack: gilded, slippery, more bustling than feral, hopscotching between East and West. Up to now, nothing has outdone Lou Ye’s film Suzhou River (2000) when it comes to representing the Shanghai of today. Its overlapping stories of small-time losers conflated with Hitchcockian quotations, its narrative flipping and doubling back on itself, Suzhou River is a goulash of the cosmopolitan and the cruddy, a whiff of Hollywood trapped within the stench of a rainy alley, a primer on the city in its uncertain Age of Silver.
But that game-changing Shanghai novel? Major contenders thus far include Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby and Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, both genre entertainments (smut and mystery) coated with a veneer of social relevance, both fun in their own ways. Now comes Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire. Given his eclectic background (born in Taiwan, raised in Malaysia, educated in England, where he won fame with his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory), maybe it’s fitting an expat should look to be the one to crack the Shanghai code, for what else is the city but a conglomerate of outsiders looking to forget their pasts in their mad rush to build the future?
The five central characters of Five Star Billionaire, all of them Malaysian expats, seem to believe that anyway, and even one of the chapter titles reminds us, “Forget the Past, Look Only to the Future.” Structured like a self-help book, with precepts giving each narrative episode a sarcastic bite (“Always Rebound After Each Failure,” “A Strong Fighting Spirit Swallows Mountains and Rivers”), we zip back and forth among our beautiful and damned protagonists, all of them in varying degrees of distress. There’s Phoebe, the beleaguered factory worker, lusting after LV handbags, HTC smartphones, and Italian coffee, not above stealing a local’s ID and reinventing herself as a China girl, lying her way into a receptionist gig even as she seeks her Richie Rich on dating websites. Justin is the son of a Malaysian real estate scion, fed up with being responsible for his family’s fortunes and in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Yinghui is the former bohemian who’s now an uptight career woman, obsessed with respect and face and fashion. Gary is the Taiwanese pop idol who’s actually from the sticks in Malaysia, having his own Justin Bieber meltdown. And we have our Gatsby as well: the mysterious Walter Chau, secret author of Five Star Billionaire, the ultimate how-to guide for get-rich-quickers, a man given to shady investments and bland maxims (“In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson”), and whose true heart is known to nobody.
Much of the initial fun of Five Star Billionaire is anticipating the fireworks that will occur once these characters start pinballing off each other. In spirit, the novel harkens back to Taiwan New Wave cinema, especially Edward Yang’s acrid, near-cosmic comedies (Confucian Confusion, Mah-jong), where self-delusion and folly mix freely, and no grand desire exists that can’t be thwarted in the most humiliating fashion. Aw treats us to a convincing tour of neo-neon Shanghai: the bewildering array of restaurants, bars, spas, and office towers; the ethnic dives and karaoke clubs; tenement buildings that stink of dogshit; and barren Xintiandi penthouses that lord it over downtown. We even get a cameo from Zhou Xun, the star of Suzhou River (referred to as “Zhou X.”), and it turns out she’s as superficial as any of them (“Wim Wenders—is he famous? I don’t feel like working with him—he sounds boring”).
Aw ushers Five Star Billionaire’s criss-crossing plots along with assurance, and the book is never less than readable. As seasons and fortunes change (mostly for the worse), the characters are at the mercy of events and luck. Love is forever confused with money in this pitiless universe, and vice versa. No one can escape his or her past either. Even Walter, puppetmaster and con man extraordinaire, knows that, in the end, it’s just Shanghai, Jake: “[In Malaysia] no one pretended to be anything or anyone grand—unlike today. Sometimes I think: I hate China. I hate the whole world.”
Sadly that matter-of-fact fatalism dulls the book’s edge the further one ventures into it. Aw’s prose, precise and deliberate, doesn’t have an extra gear when the shit hits the fan. More damaging is his insistence on spelling out his characters’ psychological underpinnings, leaving little room for spontaneity. With the exception of Phoebe and her don’t-give-a-damn attitude, our five stars are reduced to cogs in a merciless narrative machine, which makes the novel akin to a horror movie in which we know the cast will get mechanically picked off one by one. The story has the pull of inexorability, but could have used a bit more ineffability.
A gargantuan novel without a gargantuan statement, Five Star Billionaire collapses in a heap by the end, all plot strands trailing off into uncertainty, each character left up in the air. Perhaps that can be taken as a statement in itself. Isn’t eternal buildup and collapse the secret to life in Shanghai? For all his narrative pyrotechnics, Aw leaves the reader trying to live like a local, armed only with a tourist map.
Five Star Billionaire
By Tash Aw
Spiegel & Grau (2013)