April 26, 2005

Amy Tan and the Literary Undertow

I had absolutely no intention of writing anything about the story "Half and Half" . . . until I read it. The first sentence sucked me right in and I remained completely absorbed until the end. The story moved gracefully in and out of multiple time periods, beginning at its end and ending at its beginning . . . both of which are the same point. The story is complex, but easy to follow, and through it run individual threads of no immediately apparent importance, but of endless fascination, which are tied into the narrative one by one as the pages continue to turn. I was absolutely convinced that I was reading a true story about a personal experience until I turned to the biography of the author . . . and even knowing the story was fictional made it no less real to me.

The story is told in the first person by Rose Hsu Jordan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco . . . although I don't believe her first name is mentioned once in the story. She is sitting in her mother's house, wondering how to break the news of her upcoming divorce, knowing that her mother will not simply accept that her daughter is getting divorced. She will want Rose to fight it.

The thought of this sends her mind flying back into her memories of the past. She remembers how she first met her husband, how they came to be married, and the reasons why they are now getting a divorce. Then her mind reels back even farther, to the day when her mother lost her faith in God, and the day Rose herself began to believe in fate.

Her father, deciding that he wants to fish, has taken his wife and seven children (Janice, Ruth, Rose, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing) to a secluded beach near Devil's Slide. A series of unfortunate mischances causes Rose to be the only one watching Bing, and that from a distance, when the four-year old boy tumbles into the ocean and disappears. She is completely frozen, saying nothing, unable to decide what to do or how to react until, after an undetermined amount of time, someone else notices Bing's absence.

The body is not recovered that day, and early the next morning Rose's mother takes her and returns to the beach where Bing was lost. Mrs. Hsu speaks with God there, asking (with complete confidence) for her son back, thanking God for the lesson and promising to be more attentive next time. Nothing happens.

Next she tries to pay back an "ancestral debt," throwing a treasured ring into the water so that the "Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea" will return Bing to her. Her confidence is still complete, but Bing still does not appear after an hour of waiting.

Next, relying on her nengkan (belief that she can do anything she puts her mind to) she throws an inner tube attached to a fishing line off the edge of the reef. The line snaps, but they stand and watch as the inner tube is sucked repeatedly into a partially submerged cavern, emerging each time without any sign of being until finally it comes out completely deflated.

Finally, at that moment, Mrs. Hsu realizes that nothing she can do will bring Bing back, and her faith is destroyed. Returning to the present, Rose tells her mother that there is no hope to save her marriage . . . no point in even trying. "This is not hope," her mother replies. "Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do."

Rose is left alone with her thoughts: "I think about Bing, how I knew he was in danger, how I let it happen. I think about my marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation."

Her mother used to carry a small, white, leatherette Bible, but since the loss of Bing the Bible has been wedged underneath the leg of a crooked table, "a way for her to correct the imbalances of life." Mrs. Hsu pretends to ignore it, but she knows that it is there. Now, Rose lifts the table leg and slides the Bible out. It is still clean, even after twenty years, and she remembers that her mother wrote in it before placing it there. Under "Deaths," she finds "Bing Hsu" written lightly in pencil.

What does it all mean, exactly? Rose has been letting life happen to her for twenty years now. Ever since the loss of her brother when she was fourteen she has felt locked into a predetermined path. She cannot make decisions (the source of conflict with her husband) because she doesn't think any decision will affect the outcome of events. If she doesn't learn to have faith, in herself and in her life as much as in God, this is how things will be for her forever.

The key is in her changed perspective on fate at the end of the story. She now perceives fate, not as predetermined, but as self-determined. When, after her mother’s efforts to retrieve Bing, she is so “angry . . . that everything had failed” them, what she is not realizing is that she has also failed herself. Her mother, I think, has allowed faith to take over; hasn't given in to fate. Bing's name, written under "Deaths," is "in erasable pencil." Realizing this, if she realizes this, what steps will Rose take now?

Posted by Jared at April 26, 2005 01:10 PM | TrackBack