Identity, Loneliness and Incommunicability in Esmé Weijun Wang’s “The Border of Paradise”
“Here we are, the constellation of a coupled single star”
You can feel Wang’s first novel since its inscription:
“Here we are,
the constellation of
a coupled single star”
And that’s what the characters seem to scream from the first line.
— We are lonely, desperate, we’re wandering around with no directions. We don’t have a common language, common roots, common ground to explore our feelings and emotions.
They’re all caged, prisoners of the emotions, of a country they don’t fit in, of a twisted relationship, of a morality and the choices they made, as we do sometimes, in order to survive.
The Border of Paradise is not an easy novel. You can’t lay on the beach and wander through it distractly, witho no blink whatsoever. It’s an heavy, rich and complex text which develops around its characters, their impossibility to fit into society but mainly their inability to connect and communicate to each other.
David is “obsessive, neurotic and wracked by insomnia”. He falls in love with Marianne, who end up becoming a nun, he loses her, and his father dies. Suddently rich, he travels the world, ends up in Taiwan and comes back to USA with Jia-Hui, “the woman I named Daisy”, his brand new Taiwanese wife, whose name he changes for the sake of integration, to renconcile difference between his tradionalist Polish family and the woman he thinks he loves. In order to make everyone’s life (his life) easier.
David might love Daisy, the person he created when he changed her name. But how can you really love someone whom you stripped of her identity, past, language and every inch of connection with her life? With what belonged to her? With her true existence and perception of herself?
Is love really love, if not even articulated? If there’s no way to express that love, to understand and get to know each other intimately and emotionally, how can you nurture a feeling, a marriage, an intercultural marriage in America in the 70s? How can that love survives if stripped from the unavoidable need of constant adjustments and confrontation?
Daisy looks like a token, a fantasy, the last, desperate way out for David. Their marriage was built with silence and sensuality, not with words. Daisy couldn’t understand that husband, so complicated and doomed by the monsters in his head, and she can’t even articulate her doubts and fears.
Living, for David, was always “an exhausting act”; Daisy, in her fierce awareness aknowledges that several times. The “pessimistic optimism” that kept him alive just vanished, and there’s no love, no affection, not even their children, William and Gillian, seem to help out on giving him a reason to survive. Nothing does.
Wang explores with emphatic intensity the painful gap between will and act, between their feelings and their inability to express them. And, for the reader everything is even more frustrating, because we know what they feel, we perceive Daisy’s desperate linguistic marathon, David’s struggle, their connection. But it seems that love, or life, or will, or family, not even the idea of living can actually survive if not sustained by the articulation of our inner selves.
“What can I say about love now when I could barely express how I felt about him to his face when he was alive?”
Daisy helds the responsibility of her silence, and at the same time the powerlesness born out of it. David made his choice, she made hers. And now, freed by his death, she can flourish again. She turns her grief into something new, into the only way she knows to express her love and affection: isolation.
“I still feel this panic, as it’s a fear that never leaves — the fear of the disappearance of things, and of people.”
Everything works with no one else around, if the toxic miasma of Western society can’t reach them they can be free. Free to speak Mandarin, free to get together, free to exist in a familiar frame. Free to claim their duality, their identity, their belonging. She builds the perfect castle, the perfect universe, the perfec reality. William and Gillian are products of love (even if she is a product of Dave’s love for another woman, Marianne) and with that same love they’re bonded forever.
In that world, aseptic ad it is artificial, they get lost. The fear of being alone, of losing people, of being forced to face reality and to integrate, of feeling lost again, scared and silenced becomes obsession, and then psychosis. Daisy, first victim of the same cruel game, becomes the executioner. Cruel in her absolute good faith, merciless in her self-sacrifice. Manipulative in her desperate attempt to save what’s left of her family, her identity, herself.
“We have no choice. We never have. I thought I was choosing fot Gillian, but I had no choice myself. Nowhere to go — and Gillian, poor thing, knew this before I did”
They’re doomed. Damned. Dead bodies wandering in a microcosm with no contraddictions and no meanings. Their house is the only reality, their feelings their trusted servant. Dave robbed Daisy of her identity, he tore her own culture and past apart in order to make her fit into his. By creating an artificial and untarnished bell jar, she tries to protect everybody from the cruel world she thinks they live.
And by reshaping reality and exceptions, she reshapes the language to describe it, the imagination to thinking of it, and the behaviour to live in it.
Language, the use of it instead of the lack of it, this time, becomes a tool, the tool for shaping the distance between them and the outside. The Other, the enemy, the world.
William and Gillian, like blinded deers, just follow her into the tragic past which runs them to the end, maybe unexpected, fast, bloody, confusing, complex, but certainly not unpredictable.
The border of their Paradise is a bloody line marked by silence, distance, fear and blindness, drawn by impossibilities and unspoken words: I love you, forgive me, I miss you, I need you, it wasn’t your fault, please, thank you, sorry. You are released.
And the same massive and scary world seems to forget them, swallowed by the giant mouth of the every day life. And in the giant belly of the whale, they simply succumb.
“We can’t change enough to be out there.”
The Border of Paradise is made by the same feeling of unavoidability and predestination we can breathe through the pages, the same crowded loneliness, the same scared love. The same stubborn endourance, the same quiet defeat.
It’s a novel carved into oxymorons, failed translations and blind spots, inlaid into hundreds of missing moments and tacit promises (never attended).
It’s a huge What if and an emotional tongue twister.
It’s complex and merciless, rich and toxic, sometimes too dark, sometimes too bright.
And I am so grateful that I can’t even explain it.