LUST, CAUTION by Eileen Chang
Anchor Books, 2007, 68 pages, 978-0-307-38744-8, Paperback, $9.00
Genre: Fiction/Short Story
Lust, Caution is most appropriately called a short story; fifty pages bound into a little booklet that costs more to buy than your average 800 page fantasy novel, but by no means is the money ill spent.
Reading the foreword to this story is almost essential for those of us who are less familiar with the problems China faced in the 1940s. It gives the appropriate backdrop for the tale in addition to relating some bits and pieces of the author’s life. Julia Lovell does a very good job of offering these descriptions, though, as with most forewords and introductions, it comes dangerously close to spoiling the end of story for those of us not quick enough to abandon reading it.
As for the story itself, it revolves around an espionage plot: Wang Chia-chih, a young student working under the false name Mai Tai-Tai, is assigned to get close to Mr. Yee, a powerful man working for the Japanese occupational government. She spends a long time preparing for this, though the story does not show the process as a novel might, drawn out over several chapters. Instead we are given the exposition succinctly and quickly, as if watching it pass through Chia-Chih’s mind as imagery rather than narration. We see the majority of the action from her point of view, the past and the present coming together even as she contemplates the future. It’s at these last moments in the story, as she envisions the end of her act taking place, that readers will feel her tension and make it their own.
The description in the story is rich but subtle. It wasn’t until I had put the book down that I realized how immersed I had been in the main character’s world. The scenes at the mahjong table, the street outside the theater, and the dingy jeweler’s shop, each with its own details and specific purposes, hold the story together in a sort of circle, never letting us stray from those main points of action. And, of course, the settings aren’t the only things that enrich the narrative. Chang is superb at painting her scene down to the smallest, but most meaningful button, to the decorations painted on mirrors, glazing the page with exactly the minutiae that would catch Chia-chih’s attention. It’s in these details that the story acquires its otherworldly feel.
The ending is surprising but, at the same time, not unexpected when viewed from Chia-chih’s perspective. The handling of her realization and the subsequent scenes is beautifully done, marking what is probably the most engaging part of the story.