Book review: Five Star Billionaire

Tash Aw’s novel of life in contemporary Shanghai fails to capture the city’s nuances, and offers up characters with few intellectual virtues or interests

By Bradley Winterton  / 

Tue, Apr 16, 2013 - Page 12

Taiwan should be interested in Tash Aw. He was born here, to Chinese-Malaysian parents, but the family moved back to Malaysia two years later. He then moved to the UK for his university education, and got himself into Cambridge where he read law. His fictional debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, appeared in 2005 and won the Whitbread Prize for a first novel. This new book, Five Star Billionaire, is his third. It features five characters, all Chinese from Malaysia, living and struggling to succeed in modern Shanghai. One of them is a pop-singer who found his first success in Taipei.

The five are Phoebe, who travels to Shanghai to take up a job that no longer exists; Gary (the pop star) who is far less certain of himself than his public performances would suggest, and who gets into a pub brawl with disastrous consequences; Justin, the off-shoot of a family with a long history of entrepreneurial success, who’s also less than perfectly fitted for his role; the ambitious Yinghui; and the enigmatic Walter, the only character to speak in the first person and, among other things, a writer.

Inevitably the lives of these characters interact. This involves coincidences, but this wouldn’t be a novel without them, and anyway they’re much less unbelievable than the coincidences that proliferate so enjoyably in Anthony Powell’s classic A Dance to the Music of Time.

I wish I could have enjoyed this ambitious novel more than I did. In an interview Aw has said that the novel that most influenced him was Moby Dick, but there isn’t a shred in this new publication of Melville’s poetic, world-ranging romanticism, let alone any obvious concern for nature (except in passages about Walter’s father, who’s trying to restore an old hotel back in Kota Bharu) or sense of the wonder and mystery of the world. Instead, it’s all about Shanghai’s commercial life, and the characters’ attempts to come to terms with it. In any event I found this depressing, even claustrophobic.

None of the characters show any interest in matters unrelated to the commercial life of the city. There’s no one concerned with medicine, say, or scholarship, as there are in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the inevitable bench-mark when considering long novels with interacting characters. Five Star Billionaire might form the basis for a good TV series, where characters don’t usually have intellectual interests, but I for one expect a novel to display greater imaginative daring.

It’s arguable that Aw is highly critical of Shanghai’s commercialism, and that this is the whole point of his novel. This would make it a work of social criticism, but if this is the case then it should display its author’s attitudes far more openly and vibrantly than it does. As it is, the book lacks any sense of danger, any caustic bite, and, inevitably, any comedy. This makes it a bland read, an especially serious shortcoming in a work of social criticism.

Presumably the great novel about this city is Han Bangqing’s (韓邦慶) The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai [reviewed in the Taipei Times June 22, 2008]. This novel is characterized by the tricks and ploys used in classic urban stage comedies, with “extortionists, blackmailers, con-men, messengers, locked boxes, abductions, hen-pecked husbands, cheating lovers and meddling mothers,” as I wrote about it five years ago. Five Star Billionaire needs a liberal dose of this sort of thing to relieve it from the aura of sameness that tends to characterize its pages.

This, in other words, is an attempt at a major novel that in important ways fails. Great books have an unmissable originality and flair about them, but I found this novel, by contrast, distinctly hard-going.

Yet the publishers have spared themselves no pains in their pre-publicity. They even promise that “proposed social media activity will create online profiles for the novel’s characters to allow direct interaction with readers.” Who will monitor the resulting activity, you wonder? Teams of scribes trained in the thought-patterns of the five? Presumably Aw won’t be directly involved.

It so happens that there’s a Taiwanese novelist, also with a Malaysian background, whose work is preferable to this novelist’s. He’s Zhang Guixing (張貴興), whose exotic novel My South Seas Sleeping Beauty was reviewed in these pages on May 13, 2007.

One chapter of Zhang’s colorful evocation of life in Borneo, replete with ghosts and magical monsters, and very funny, is for me worth all of Aw’s meticulous depiction of the victims of the neuroses fed by Shanghai’s commercial modernity.

One thing that characterizes Aw’s sensibility, but is certainly not at all typical of Zhang Guixing’s, is Englishness. Maybe our author has spent too long living in close contact with the fastidiousness induced by the UK’s cold and misty climate, and needs to get back East to re-experience its more seductive aromas. Who knows, he might even find some of them lurking in Shanghai itself.