The titular billionaire of Tash Aw’s third novel is no Scrooge. On the contrary, he’s happy to share the wealth a little – at least metaphorically. That’s why he’s written several business/self-help books about money, excerpts from one of which serve as a frame for Aw’s own intricately woven stories of love, cash and human connection in present-day Shanghai. The novel opens with the billionaire remembering how, as a young child, he consciously decided to become very rich. Rich enough to own a whole building!
A few pages later, he admits his lack of imagination: “I realize that I was foolish: I should never have been so modest in my ambitions, nor waited so long to pursue them.”
It’s these kinds of glimpses at the Chinese good life that fuel all five of the Taipei-born, London-based Aw’s protagonists. Phoebe is an undocumented Malaysian immigrant who uses Machiavellian logic to claw her way into a legitimate job and, hopefully, the middle class and beyond. Gary is a former teen pop star wondering if he can recover from a public slide into alcoholism. Yinghui owns a successful lingerie company, but gets tempted to over-invest in a development project that sounds too good to be true. Justin, the assumed inheritor of his family’s real-estate empire, gets cold feet and decamps to an anonymous apartment building. And Walter is the billionaire himself, either the novel’s secret puppetmaster or else a phenomenally successful con artist.
At first glance, Five Star Billionaire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this week, appears to be a timely novel. It’s a panoramic look at a country – indeed, a hemisphere – that only becomes more important to the global conversation with each passing year. It also provides a counterpoint to issues that are already being debated in recent Western fiction. Both Alex Leslie’s story People Who Are Michael and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, by Teddy Wayne, investigated the inner turmoil of our fresh-faced pop stars. (Much of the arc of Gary’s storyline is reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked.) And the disaffected Brooklynite hero of Tao Lin’s new novel looks to his native Taipei, a city that makes several cameos here as well, for some type of guidance about How We Live Now.
This novel’s most compelling angle is its treatment of the world’s largest city, which looms large as a tangible symbol of the atom-smashing that is life in the overcrowded 21st century. Aw’s Shanghai is a huge, glowing, bewildering edifice that seems to change shape at will, allowing money, people, and even entire streets to disappear between the cracks. That’s why Phoebe feels, at one point, as though the city is bearing “down on her with the weight of ten skyscrapers.” It’s not just the weight that’s trapping her, in other words, but also the height. Shanghai is a city that makes you feel very, very small.
Strange, then, that a book so concerned with the present moment would willingly lock itself into such an old-fashioned shell. Five Star Billionaire is padded with all the trappings of a novel written centuries earlier: elegant but unnecessary descriptions, over-explained dialogue, and a pillowy narrative style that promises the reader will never feel the jolt of a too-sudden provocation or turn in the plot. Instead, the four story lines in the novel start to slowly overlap and fold in on one another in ways that feel increasingly cheap and forced. And since the protagonists are largely split along gender lines – the women calculating and upwardly mobile, the men wealthy recluses with emotional issues – it can be difficult to keep straight what has happened to whom in the preceding pages.
But it’s the prose that really snuffs whatever flame Aw is able to spark from his setting. Life in 2013 is nothing if not fast, yet these are paragraphs designed to meander and even sedate. In a self-contained flashback, for instance, do we really need several sentences about the weather in Japan on a certain day – “the freezing air” that “raked the lining of [Justin’s] nostrils, burning its way down his throat and into his lungs ... and his thin tropical blood [feeling] powerless against the cold”? Just tell us what we’re doing here, already.
At one point in the book, while on a blind date, Phoebe offers to pay for a round of drinks, saying to her surprised, would-be suitor, “Hey, big brother, this is the modern world, you know.” Her author doesn’t seem to have absorbed the lesson quite so fully.
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His first novel, The Dilettantes, will be published in September.