Reading in Reverse
The Opposite of Fate
Harper Collins, 2003
‘What is fate’s opposite?’ asks Amy Tan in her new ‘book of musings’, a collection of essays on life, linguistics, family and literature. Two candidates are proposed early. First there is hope, which allows for all things. Then there is faith, as practised by Tan’s Baptist minister father. If you pray for the love of your life, God might land you a volunteer position at the local animal shelter, where saving animals becomes the love of your life. ‘God, like your parents, Santa Claus, and perhaps your psychiatrist or editor, knows best how to funnel your desires into more likely and beneficial outcomes.’
But this example is not really one of faith. It’s more an instance of reverse reading, the revisionist version of hindsight, the retrospective placing of pattern on events. Tan follows her fictional practice of accumulating examples. Many are malign. The Cliff Notes for The Joy Luck Club put biographical facts together to produce a distorted narrative of her life. The media manipulate images to suggest she has taken a certain stand in China . Tan’s ethnicity is used to pigeon-hole her as a writer. Assumptions about the way Mandarin works are used to ‘explain’ its speakers’ behaviour.
But reverse reading has its happy outcomes. Tan’s mother, who wished her child to become a neurosurgeon and concert pianist on the side, tells her, after Tan has succeeded as an author, that she ‘always knew her daughter be writer one day’. Tan’s own case of Lyme disease becomes more manageable when its symptoms are traced back to a cause. The same backwards trajectory enables her to locate what she calls her ‘morbid imagination’ (the thrillingly dark and magical atmosphere of her novels) in the ’emotional terrorism’ she knew in childhood (her mother made regular suicide threats and once held a meat cleaver to her daughter’s throat). Knowing exactly when her mother’s Alzheimer’s began means Tan can view her mother’s behaviour with ‘a more sympathetic eye’.
The point is narratological. Reverse reading is reinterpreting the past with the enhanced knowledge of the present. It is understanding the beginning by knowing the ending. It is the improvement of the past with the benefit of hindsight. ‘Now that I’ve written it down,’ Tan says of an imaginary encounter with Nabokov, ‘I can recall it as the fond memory of truth.’ Somewhat interestingly, the origins of the cool humour that is the dominant tone of this volume are not explained.
Here we are entering the realm of what it means to be a writer. Tan’s novels are memorable for their clever exploitation of coincidences and likenesses. But in this collection, their author is disconnecting the connections. In a typically striking image, she envisions her origins and past as a set of mah jong tiles, lined up one after another, in the form of a dragon’s tail. ‘I let the pieces fall. I look back at the pattern that was created, the whole concatenation of events. And then I begin to sort the pieces according to my own design.’ The opposite of fate, then, is art.
Kate McLoughlin is working on a DPhil. at Somerville College, Oxford, titled ‘Martha Gellhorn: the War Writer in the Field and in the Text’.