We Two Alone: Stories
“Wang has the distinct skill of evoking time and place, many eras, many places, and putting his characters, and the reader in them.”
The book contains a novella and six short stories. The stories are exciting on many levels, the novella is not. “We two alone” is the beginning of a quote from King Lear that continues “will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.” And it is a fitting title for the novella that comprises a third of this book about two actors, Leonard and Emily, who don’t make it in either Hollywood or New York. We follow them page after page after page through tryouts, call backs, minor roles, and their own trials: attempts at having a child, a break up and final reunion where “. . .we’ll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.” Not to say the story does not contain well phrased sentiments. “When Emily had landed the role of Honey [she received a Lucille Lortel nomination] it seemed a matter of getter older, growing into the right roles. Now it seemed they were growing out of them.”
But the novella has the feel of its characters walking through life, the precarious life of actors to be sure, but seemingly without real highs or lows. They might be anyone, cushioned ultimately by family money. And it doesn’t appear particularly relevant to the tale that Leonard is Chinese.
The six short stories, on the other hand, pop with life and poetry. They examine and dramatize the Chinese diaspora over the last hundred years in places as diverse as Vancouver, Tallahassee, Vienna, and Belsize Park.
“The Valkyries” is a heartbreaking story of a young Canadian Chinese hockey player, shunned by the boys’ teams, regardless of his skills. They wouldn’t pass him the puck, because he was Chinese. Being slender and asexual in appearance, he joined a girls’ team, covering up in the locker room and hotel rooms on road trips, leading the team to the finals. Until he was uncovered. “Yes, they were coming for him, the Valkyries, and he to the things he was owed.”
“The Nature of Things” features and interesting juxtaposition of the concept of diaspora. A Chinese doctor, born in Vancouver, educated in Canada, goes to Shanghai in 1930 to practice medicine. He goes because to be licensed as a doctor in Canada he must be registered to vote. But in 1930 people of Chinese descent did not have the vote. The title of the story comes from the philosophical poem by Lucretius. In “We Too Alone” Shakespeare’s Lear provides the thematic thrust. In this story the doctor’s wife discovers an underlined verse in her husband’s translation of the poem.
“Consider sunbeams . . .
You will see a multitude of tiny bodies
All mingling in a multitude of ways
Inside the sunbeam.”
The doctor goes to the front with the Nationalist troops to face the Japanese invaders. When hope for his return has vanished, Wang writes about the wife’s thoughts, “All she knew, what she finally came to accept, was that the sweet inimitable assemblage of atoms that was Frank Yeung was no more.”
The settings and situations that Wang creates are inventive without being unbelievable. He tells a story in a way that the reader wants to turn the page, care about the story’s characters, and awaken an emotional reaction at their fate.
Wang is particularly effective and evocative with his story endings. “The Night of Broken Glass” is told by a boy whose father works in the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, at that time, the 1930s, the German province of Ostmark, where he signs visas for Jewish people wishing to leave. After Kristallnacht, he continues to sign visas, but when a black mark is placed in his file he decides to return to China for the sake of his family. But his wife leaves sooner, to go to America. At the train station, the boy and his father watch her train leave. “The train slowly dwindled . . . He stood where he was, watching the train reach its vanishing point . . . Even when the train became little more than a wisp of smoke, he kept staring.” The imagery is palpable.
Wang has the distinct skill of evoking time and place, many eras, many places, and putting his characters, and the reader in them. For this, for his erudition, for his poetic prose, readers of short fiction should search out any short story his writes.