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Haiku and Review: Crazy Rich Asians

 

Ship on three towers

Asian leads in a rom-com

Wedding on water

 

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good rom-com — for the uninitiated, that’s shorthand for romantic comedy.  Some of my favorites are Bridget Jones, Notting Hill, The Proposal, and the grandmommy of them all, Roman Holiday.  And in retrospect, that oldie is what Crazy Rich Asians reminds me of most, because at the core of it, this is a story of a commoner falling in love with royalty.  Nick Young may not be the prince of Singapore, but he’s the closest thing, and this is an extremely well-made fish-out-of-water story of Rachel Wu’s plight.  Much of the humor is supplied by her best friend Peik Lin, portrayed by the half Chinese, half Korean, entirely American and hilarious Awkwafina (with some choice assists from Ken Jeong playing her dad).

I don’t want to spoil a single thing, so I would just urge you to go see this in the theater.  It’s funny, heart-lifting, heart-rending, heart-everything.  I can’t believe there was a time when Michelle Yeoh was considered only an action star.  She’s so, so good here, her acting largely reserved, her reactions mostly minute — and yet she’s a gigantic presence.  The poster may be featuring the leads, but it’s Yeoh who’s the center of this film, and deservedly so.  Brava!

p.s. Yes, of course it’s a big deal that this is the first movie since The Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast.  But this film is so much more than a cultural signifier — it’s first and foremost a fine work of cinema.  So on that merit alone, it should be seen.  Though it absolutely bears mentioning that it took guts and sacrifices to put this up on the big screen — worth a read and then some: The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point

Active Adverbs

Whenever things don’t go well on the writing front — that is, I find myself doing anything but writing when I’m supposed to be doing exactly that — I pick up my copy of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.  He’s been my corrective for quite some time.

He’s a deceptively simple writer, a master of the unfettered prose.  And I swear, every time I read him again, I pick up something new.  Like here, a passage from the first story in the collection, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern.”  The story is about a new kid in class and his teacher, who thinks she’s helping him out, except she’s accomplishing exactly the opposite.

The last children to leave would see him still seated apologetically at his desk, holding his paper bag, and anyone who happened to straggle back later for a forgotten hat or sweater would surprise him in the middle of his meal — perhaps shielding a hard-boiled egg from view or wiping mayonnaise from his mouth with a furtive hand. It was a situation that Miss Price did not improve by walking up to him while the room was still half full of children and sitting prettily on the edge of the desk beside his, making it clear that she was cutting her own lunch hour short in order to be with him.

Adverbs are bad, we are told.  And yet, “seated apologetically at his desk” and “sitting prettily on the edge of the desk” — these adverbs are so active, so alive, that I think no, you absolutely can and should use adverbs, just like this.  Sparingly, strategically deployed.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I did not know who Andrew Sean Greer was until I heard he’d won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, and I continued to not know him and his sixth novel Less until I heard him read an excerpt in the New Yorker Radio Hour.  That was it; I was sold.  That short story was about Arthur Less, a nonfamous writer invited to Turin, Italy, by a minor literary prize, and it ran from one hilarious moment to the next.  Greer is one of these incredibly blessed people who just write funny.  Like how he describes the airplane lunch: “Tuscan chicken (whose ravishing name reveals itself, like an internet lover, to be mere chicken and mashed potatoes)”.

There are two things about Less that bear mentioning on a craft level (because they are absolutely crafty in the best sense of the word):

1) Greer sprinkles flashbacks judiciously throughout this novel, and he’s quite deft in the way he sneaks them in.  Example: in the last chapter, there’s this part: “…he sees a few people waiting on the dock, and among them — he recognizes her through her clear umbrella — is his mother.”  It’s not his mother, of course; rather, it’s a woman who is wearing a very similar scarf.  But this moment of misrecognition gives the reader the perfect way into this memory.

2) This novel is narrated by an unnamed character, one who acts in an omniscient manner about 95% of the time, but then there are these startling confessional first-person moments.  It’s so smart — Greer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, because he has the flexibility to play god and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and yet he also preserves the closeness of the first-person narrator when he wants to deliver an extra helping of heart.

This is just a wonderful novel, gentle and loving and funny and sad.  Unlike many literary novels, things actually happen in this book, lots of things, tons of things.  It is, after all, a travelogue of sorts, with Less jumping from country to country, continent to continent, to avoid his former lover’s wedding and his impending 50th birthday, so there’s serious propulsion in the narrative.

The writer Greer reminded me most was another favorite of mine, Brian Morton.  Fans of Starting Out in the Evening or A Window Across the River will find a great friend in Less.  I can’t wait to read the rest of Greer’s fiction.