Vancouver writer Kevin Chong's second novel begins at a funeral for the narrator's father. Malcolm Kwan shows up hung over, and actually gets dumped while standing at the podium to give his father's eulogy. You'll have to read it to know how the author pulls that off, but let's just say, by page two, you know you're in for some Arrested Development-style kookiness.
Beauty Plus Pity is a post-coming-of-age novel set during that time after university when a lot of twentysomethings have no idea who they are or what to do, and find themselves back in their hometowns, negotiating aging parents, the end of relationships and total lack of employment prospects. Malcolm lives in an apartment he can't bear, or perhaps bother to furnish, after his ex-fiancé takes her belongings away.
He's stuck in the inertia that follows the death of his father and his first significant break-up. What he does is get to know the half-sister he didn't know he had, who shows up at his father's funeral much to the enjoyment of Malcolm's crazy mother, who puts all other high-maintenance mothers in literature to shame.
Chong's strengths as a writer lie in his ability to be hilarious, and his eye for displaying the weird idiosyncrasies, contradictions and flaws in the people he writes about. In particular, the descriptions of Malcolm's relationship with his father, an aspiring filmmaker who left Hong Kong only to end up making instructional videos and commercials in Vancouver. His descriptions of childhood, growing up with an unreliable mother and distant father would be heartbreaking if it weren't for Chong's lighthearted approach to telling the story.
As the novel progresses, I kept expecting Malcolm to reveal himself to be more than he presents at first, but if it is possible for a character to be a bit blank, Malcolm is that man. He's not a very emotive guy. This makes him compelling and then kind of infuriating. You're rooting for him, but sometimes you wonder why, and you kind of wish he'd work a bit harder for it. It's a nice tension Chong manages to pull off with ease. It's refreshingly unsentimental.
This is not the typical son-of-immigrants tale; there are no sweeping hardships, no poetic examinations of cultural identity or feelings of dissonance in Canada. Kwan is the kind of dude who aspires to be a catalogue model – and aspires is really too strong a verb. He longs for his ex-girlfriends, but isn't really self-aware enough to figure out why. Though romance and relationships play a big part in the novel, the relationship at its heart is between Malcolm and his half-sister, Hadley. In her last year of high school, Hadley tires of her own mother's hysteria and moves in with Malcolm, who is grateful for the company as he deals with being significantly alone for the first time in his life.
I enjoyed Beauty Plus Pity as a whole; it's a strong, character-driven novel about grief and acceptance, and manages to be funny despite this. However, the pacing of the way the story is told felt off. The mystery of Hadley and how she came to be via his father's affair are answered fairly quickly. We are left to be with them, as they go to movies and eat dinner and try to get to know each other. We feel their awkwardness, watch how they cling to each other despite not ever really doing much besides "hanging out."
While appropriate for their ages, it gets to be a little bit of drag being a fly on the wall of their sometimes banal conversations. Eventually, Chong ups the tension between them, and packs all the action in at the end in a way that explains how things are resolved, and what fates befall the characters, instead of letting us be there in the moment as the action happens. So we get a lot of mid-section lag, and a tight run to the finish line as a wrap-up.
But the story itself is whip smart, and as Malcolm comes to understand his parents' mistakes and the reality of their lives, he grows to understand who he wants to become, and how he wants to love and connect with the people in his life. It's a story most people will relate to on some level, and one told with humour and insight.
Zoe Whittall is a Toronto poet and novelist. Her most recent book is Holding Still for as Long as Possible.