by JORDAN KLEVDAL
May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and Break (Coffee House Press, October 2018), pp. 204
The arrival of the new year means that coffee shops, bars, and restaurants are filled with the same canned exchanges: “Last year flew by,” “Where does the time go? February is almost over,” “Can you believe it’s 2019? Crazy.” Repetitive, automatic, and seemingly unavoidable as these greetings may be, the underlying anxiety that structures them––an astonishment at time passing unnoticed, a concern with things, people, opportunities missed––is telling. Exchanges like these indicate that when confronted with newness (“Can you believe it’s 2019?”) or change (“Last year flew by!”) we become acutely aware of the dynamic nature of the social and material world and the ambiguity of our place within it. The start of a new year, a new relationship, a new job, a new location, opens up a space of recognition––the recognition that for everything we see and experience there is always more that we miss.
Tapping into the nerve of this unsettling recognition, May-Lan Tan’s debut collection of eleven short stories, Things to Make and Break, is deeply preoccupied with everything that we miss. Specifically, it asks how (or if) it is possible to maintain the heightened awareness required to inventory the constant accumulation of life’s small, daily losses. These loses are not specific to any place, culture, or time, but are tied more generally to the problem of human connection. Tan––who has herself skipped across the globe, living in Indonesia, Hong Kong, California and, now, Berlin––crafts stories that follow suit. From the more specific locations of California, London, Berlin, and Texas to numerous unnamed cities, street corners, and dimly lit bars, a preoccupation with what it means for humans to be close to one another manifests again and again in this collection. Disconnected as the individual stories may appear, each presents readers with the central question, “who are we missing and why are we missing them?” Sometimes the answer is surprising: a woman misses her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a person she’s never met but who has become an obsession since she stumbled across an erotic picture. And sometimes the answer is more predictable: an aging actress misses her stunt-double, a trans-woman with whom she had a brief, but emotionally charged affair. Regardless of the shifting objects of desire, the center of each piece finds a character who is, in some way or another, missing someone or something.
This overarching structure of longing might be taken, along with the book’s marketing as “a love story,” to imply that the text is a collection of standard romances in which characters nurse their broken hearts. This is not the case. If readers are looking for stories that affirm the connective, unifying potential of love (romantic or otherwise), or even of sex, they won’t find it here. Instead, we might turn to the eponymous character of the story “Julia K.” to get a better idea of what Tan is up to in Things to Make and Break. Julia, composed of “dreams of the real thing,” sums herself up: “I’m how much it hurts and how much that’s part of it.” Here, the “real thing” is an impactful connection to a complex world and the bodies within it. But that connection, what we think of as “the real thing” of friendship, intimacy, culture, or family, is unobtainable and forever mediated. Instead, it is only ever a dream of the real thing, an idea which Tan uses to explore encounters between people over time. As her stories traverse the uneven terrain of the past and its effect on the present, some connections hold up, while others dissolve. In other words, some things make, while others break.
But what does it mean to break? And what does it mean to miss something that has been broken, or, in some cases, something that has never been made in the first place? Each of these stories unpacks the idea of “missing,” using it in a slightly different way. To miss something, or someone, has a dual meaning: it can indicate the passing of something that once was, a loss, or ignorance, or it might refer to something that never happened, paths that never crossed, a ball that was never caught, a test question answered incorrectly. Tan’s characters miss what once was (former lovers, past friendships) as well as the things they never had (a sibling that died at birth, a history that predates them, a successful career).
To combat as well as complicate the notion of missing, these stories lead the reader to the body again and again. In almost every story, the people or things that characters miss are traced through what is often taken for granted: our material continuity with the physical world. Through depictions of scars, scabs, and secretions, Tan’s collection is concerned with nothing if not the role of the body as a medium for both connection and separation. While you cannot know all of someone’s history, you can see the scars or marks that history has left. Bodies break, bleed, and scar in stories that are full of thighs stuck to pleather, broken arms, bloody noses, sweaty clothes, and blinded eyes. By paying careful attention to bodies in every form, Tan creates an intimacy with her characters––readers begin to know these bodies and the histories that produce them. At the same time, the creation of these bodies highlights an immense distance––readers acknowledge how the bodies of characters fall apart, are impossibly stylized, or ultimately fail to materialize, remaining instead the stuff of fantasy, memory, or both.
With respect to the body, experiences of sex and death are two clear avenues for exploring various degrees of connection and isolation. It makes sense, then, that the pages of Things to Make and Break are filled with experiences of sexuality, loss, and violence. Tackling each of these, as well as the way in which they interact with and overlap one another, Tan traces the confounding anatomy of dread fascination that springs from these experiences of sex and death: a hope that something both does and doesn’t happen. Characters are caught on this double edge, like the first Lauren in “Laurens” who both “hopes he won’t and hopes he will” have to use a gun for self-defense.
In Tan’s pursuit of these categories of the body––joined in sex, ultimately isolated and destroyed through death, or vice-versa––Tan exposes the underside of life. She is interested in what happens in the dark, on abandoned streets, in crummy motels. As such, these stories make no apologies as they bare all––revealing kinky crucifixions, a child shooting her abusive father, an affair with a dominatrix. Yet, some of these experiences cross into ethically ambiguous zones. At times this trespass seems deliberate––prodding the reader to think about the boundaries of pleasure, violence, and connection––while, at others, accidental or incomplete. For example, in “DD-MM-YYYY,” identical twin brothers engage in a game of sexual conquest over Coney, their best friend from high school, while she is barely conscious. Both “win” the game, and it is unclear whether or not Coney agreed to, or was even aware of these encounters. This is just one example of how power dynamics, especially the dynamics of sex, function in somewhat predictable rather than illuminating ways in several of the stories. Readers are not asked to wonder about consent, violence, and the role of power in such experiences, but are merely led to gawk at the splattered spectacle left behind. In a cultural moment in which the acknowledgment and treatment of sexual harassment and violence is part of an ongoing debate, leaving the territory of consent and abuse unexplored here and elsewhere in the collection feels like an oversight. If we hope to push common narratives and experiences surrounding sex to more equitable grounds, redefining and reshaping the concept of consent is crucial. But such a project requires more than identifying instances in which boundaries have been crossed; it also requires revising the cultural script. Media and art––from books to films to music––play a crucial role here. While Tan treats many topics––such as the frequent ambivalence surrounding sex––with great nuance, she does not always urge readers to participate in the difficult but important work of revising existing and restrictive narratives around sexuality and consent.
Even as Tan glosses over the ethics and rote roles of sexual experience, she does make use of the body and sexual connection in order to expand upon the questions of connection between individuals and individual relationships with the self. Although, as the back cover of the book suggests, “two people are never alone in a love story” in a literal sense throughout Tan’s stories (both because they are physically together and, more abstractly, because they are observed by Tan’s readers), Things to Make and Break indicates that being alone and feeling alone are not at all the same. In fact, it might be more lonely to never be alone in your own story, as the short story “Ghosts” suggests. This might be one reason why Tan’s characters seem unable to stick to one another. Instead, they are like pinballs, bouncing into one another, lighting up the environment, however briefly, before ultimately going their (mostly separate) ways. Perhaps because of this Brownian motion, it can be just as hard for the reader to attach to these characters. On this point, Tan falters, if only slightly. While the infeasibility of connection and the inevitability of missing might be just the point Tan is trying to make, it tends to make Things to Make and Break an uneven reading experience. Some characters are shadowed and sketched to the greatest nuance, while others appear hastily drawn by comparison.
Despite all of this––the uncomfortable ethical suspensions and the slippery qualities of some characters––one thing that is sure to stick with you is Tan’s prose. Studded with beautifully blunt, at times merciless, sentences, Things to Make and Break peels back the physical and social world with the point of a scalpel. It is telling that the title suggests a sort of process––a making that is only truly complete upon its breaking. This seems to model the way that Tan, when at her finest, writes: splitting open the world to reveal wet and glittering insides, alternatingly beautiful and disturbing. The simultaneously dreamy and visceral product of her style is one that is aptly summed up by David Collard’s Time’s Literary Supplement observation that this collection is cinematic in a particularly Lynch-ian way. Each story bears at least one observation that is uncannily sharp, even if the plot takes a turn towards the symbolic, the bizarre. At times, though, this leads to a synthetic, overwrought construction of what is otherwise clean, striking prose. The short story “Transformer” allows us to consider a narrator who explains, “People say the first one is the one you’ll love forever, so I pop my cherry with a Coke bottle before inviting myself over.” The prospects are either delightful or horrifying: will she love herself forever, or will she love Coke? The reader decides if this is a compelling image of a young girl’s relationship with herself, an overworked metaphor about an unloving, impersonal, commercial society, or a mixture of the two.
It is possible to say that Things to Make and Break is already something that was missed, at least in America: this first U.S. edition by Coffee House Press came out just last year, despite the fact that the collection was first published by CB Editions in 2014 and shortlisted by readers for the Guardian “First Book Award” in that same year. But perhaps this uneven reception—alternately lagging and explosive—is fitting for Tan’s conceptual interests. So as 2019 presents us with boundless encounters and experiences––both those we can catch hold of as well as everything that slips through our fingers––Things to Make and Break is worth catching if only because it might be as close as we can get to everything we miss.