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Book Review: "Wild Kids: Two Novels About Growing Up," by Chang Ta-chun (Newsday)

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Bad Boys and Little Sisters

WILD KIDS: Two Novels About Growing Up, by Chang Ta-chun. Translated by Michael Berry. Columbia University Press, 257 pp., $22.95.

By Emily Gordon

LORD KNOWS there are few other compensations, but it is the privilege of writers to make things up — lying when convenient, and populating whole planets out of dust. “What I mean is that everyday life frequently puts people in a position where they have no choice but to tell a small untruth. I don’t like to do it, but sometimes that’s how things go. And so, I became a writer.” So says the narrator of “My Kid Sister,” the novella that makes up half of Chang Ta-chun’s “Wild Kids: Two Novels About Growing Up.” Chang’s characters are masters of invention; they skirt death by talking, like Scheherezade, or like the king in a fable that the same narrator’s girlfriend recounts, who’ll achieve immortality if he can put 100 concubines to sleep with his storytelling.

There lies Chang’s joke, and his genius. Writing is clearly sustenance and survival for him-in his native Taiwan he’s conquered nearly every literary genre and created at least one entirely new form, not to mention a pseudonymous persona, Big Head Spring (Datou Chun), who’s busy putting out books of his own, including this one — but it’s also something he doesn’t take overly seriously. Both “My Kid Sister,” a tale of two siblings that crackles with irreverent wit, and “Wild Child,” the story of a middle-school truant’s trip into a decidedly B-list gangster underworld, take conventional ideas of narrative and character and throw them in the air like Pick-Up Stix that land in an anarchic yet oddly geometric clatter.

The older brother in “My Kid Sister” (that is, the grown-up Big Head Spring) is a writer who plunders his childhood experiences and his friends’ lives for material, and who’s spent time in the army. Probably not coincidentally, this is also true of Chang Ta-chun — who, as translator Michael Berry tells us in his somewhat heavy-footed introduction, went from military service to massive success in Taiwan with his semi-autobiographical and political fiction. Memoir or not (the dedication is “for my sister…It was her courage in facing the viciousness of reality that provided the abundance of precious material used in the writing of this book. As for my grandparents, parents, and everyone else, they don’t necessarily have either the interest or the ability to understand this rather unsubstantial work”), this is a gorgeous story, despite its narrator’s blustery crudeness and profanity, and its subject’s tendency to slip out of our grasp like a minnow each time we think we finally have her.

Berry compares the theme of “Wild Child” - a boy runs away from school, has adventures and comes into his own-to that of “Catcher in the Rye,” but if anyone sounds Salingerish, it’s “My Kid Sister’s” Phoebe-like heroine, who doesn’t speak till she’s 2 years old and indeed is diagnosed autistic by the family doctor. She’s not autistic, as it turns out, but she does behave and speak oddly; this further endears her to her protective older brother, and throughout the novella (or whatever it is), she moves through his life commenting on and being affected by it. She bombards him with intimate questions about his girlfriends; she develops a hopeless crush on his female tutor; they plot public revenge on their wandering father for neglecting their manic-depressive, distilled-water-addicted mother; when the sister gets pregnant as a teenager, her brother consoles her after the abortion.

But Holden would have been scandalized by this older brother, whose view of life is many shades darker and much rougher than his, who calls women “chicks” and can say of a lover who begs him to write about her life that “her story is pretty much the same as everyone else in the world’s story. The main character experiences something and afterward is unable to recover or return to the way things were … These allow the main character to discover that living is but the accumulation of a series of death experiences; we experience a day of life just to realize that we are unable to return to yesterday’s life. When the character realizes this, he feels terribly sad … Even sadder is the fact that in reality, he or she was never any kind of a main character.”

Better to compare this terrain to Philip Roth’s; our hero is obsessed with the profane, but he’s equally preoccupied with the divine, and spiritual and bawdy questions lie unashamedly together. Freud and Sartre, suffice it to say, have more than cameos here (though, the brother admits with customary drollness, “I never had the ability to go head-to-head with Freud on anything”). For him, his sister embodies everything female - early in her adolescence he finds himself noticing her curves and is fascinated and ashamed-and idealized, the charm of innocence and nobility of soul.

Though Big Head Spring — whose 1992 book of fictional journal entries was a best-seller-is the purported author of both of these novellas, it’s in “Wild Child” that his famous rebelliousness is in full flower. Here, young Big Head plays hooky and falls in with a band of shadowy gangsters, led by the fearless Annie, who talk like James M. Cain, live like Dickens’ pickpockets and aspire to Mario Puzo, but act more like Chester Himes’ small-time lowlifes. “All that is left in this world are gang leaders, good-for-nothings, and dead people. Teenagers are already a thing of the past,” Big Head begins, and he means it. Where “My Kid Sister” is loving and meditative, “Wild Child” is violent and cynical, though it has many tender and comic moments. (“If I keep carrying on about how much it hurt, how much pain I was in, I could ramble on for two and a half hours, but other than proving how big of a chicken I am, what would be the point of that?”) It’s ultimately a less pleasurable read than its companion, but Big Head is a character worth knowing, and I want more of him.

In both novellas, Chang also leapfrogs into Milan Kundera country, giving philosophical journeys (both ridiculous and profound) equal pride of place with character and events. But don’t think that means there’s anything ponderous about the ghoulish, playful, totally subversive “Wild Kids,” which is enchanting in its portrait of being young in modern Taiwan-where Michael Jordan is as important as the ghosts of ancestors, and a grandmother switches off her Gameboy to cook Fried Rose Petal Paste — and which deserves to make Chang as much of an icon in English as he is in Chinese.

Published September 17, 2000

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