Book Review: Things to Make and Break

Things to Make and Break, May-Lan Tan, Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2018.

On the UK publication of May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, the collection sported a blurb from famed editor Gordon Lish. Known for his slash-and-burn edits of Raymond Carver’s short stories, Lish has been mostly reclusive since the hey-days of 80s fiction. Of Tan’s work, Lish wrote, almost cryptically:

“So here is what I, my having just two seconds ago finished getting myself jazzed crazy by Things to Make and Break, am wagering when it comes to May-Lan Tan – to wit, that some smart gobbet of the populace will, five years hence, be found entering her name onto a list of those whose first-hand reports from the interior can be counted upon when, at the world-wide betting window, it’s time to risk what’s left of time.”

At the end of his blurb, he corrects himself: “Nah, I’ve reconsidered – make it two and a half years.”

So what does a fiction debut from a British writer of Chinese Indonesian descent have in common with the editor and mentor for the likes of Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Barry Hannah? Quite a lot. And very little, it turns out.

At her most Carveresque, Tan’s prose is clean, polished, and tight. It has a perfect simplicity that’s short and to-the-point, obvious yet poetic. “Gas station coffee tasted like the cup,” she writes in one story, or “She smells like pink lotion,” in another, all of which, like Carver’s stories, belies a world of quiet tension. In “Date Night,” for instance, a Hong Kongese girl is taken care of by her Indonesian nanny as her mother goes on a date. The eight-page story is one of quiet heartbreaking gestures that highlight the very different lives of these two characters. When the girl tells the nanny her mother works as an art director at a multinational ad agency, the nanny’s “face turns serious. ‘I like art,’ she says quietly.’”

Tan has a way of saying many things without saying much at all. This is perhaps best shown in “Ghost,” where a couple stays at a hotel after an episode of infidelity at the advice of a doctor, who is not really a doctor. The particulars of the infidelities are never explicitly stated (something with a dominatrix), but that hardly matters as the two argue, talk about the concept of forgiveness, and eventually call the whole thing—whatever it is they were going to do to fix their relationship—off. The story is less about what had happened and what will happen than the chasm of understanding and the characters’ inability to avoid it.

Tan’s stories are about these chasms: how people are separated by experiences, perception, and sometimes by pure luck. All it takes is two people to make a story and Tan runs with this. The result, very unlike Carver or Hempel or any of Lish’s other students, is explosive and surprising, jolting in the best ways.

In “DD-MM-YY” twin brothers’ lives and relationship with a girl next door change dramatically after a car accident. Meanwhile, “Laurens,” in which two children who “both have boys’ names for surnames and live off Interstate 10 in towns that have girls’ names” is a two-part character sketch of families that on the surface look similar but whose destinies are very different.

Often, Tan protagonists’ trajectories run in-tandem with others like them but with better, parallel lives. In “Legendary,” a courier is pitted against her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a trapeze artist who’s “the worst kind of pretty: classically, mathematically gorgeous,” while in “101” the narrator hooks up with her sister’s husband’s brother at their wedding, something she wishes were permanent but knows will only be temporary. “It’s bound to fuck up,” she says, “I mean we’re not them.”

Tan’s characters are screw-ups, outsiders, and losers—made more so by their foils—in search of human connection, a way out of their loneliness, permanent or otherwise. More often than not, attempts to reach out end ruefully; scars are a surprising motif in these stories—from the stigmata scars inflicted on a stripper in “Julia K” to the less visible emotional scars in “101” or “Would Like To Meet,” as if to say these marks are what you get for trying. A stand-out story in a collection of stand-out stories, “Would Like To Meet,” features a failed artist who is robbed at her gift shop job. Motivated to change her life dramatically, she answers a personal ad from a couple only to see—among other things—what she is lacking in her own life: love.

The stories in Things to Make and Break take many forms—from very traditional to quite experimental (as is the case with “Candy Glass,” a story shaped like a screenplay). A comparison to Carver or Hempel or Hannah is perhaps not warranted at all, except if Lish’s 1980s protégés represented a new page in the history of the short story—in their attention to the minutiae of everyday American lives—Tan represents another new age. Whereas the short story of the 1980s was the province of straight white Americans, Tan is something different: multi-national, sometimes queer, not white. In short, Tan writes into new territory, exciting territory. Things to Make and Break is a game changer.


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