Shifting between a series of seemingly disparate narratives, Tash Aw’s latest work, Five-Star Billionaire, traces the lives of five Malaysians in the less familiar land of Shanghai, all whom share a common goal: to fulfill their material desires one way or another due to an almost desperate fascination with the notion of success, of having, in one of the character’s words, “made it.” Although the title inevitably suggests a kind of material obsession worthy of a “five-star billionaire”, there is an intricate fascination with the workings of time in narrative that finds continuity from his previous novels, The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World.
The change in environment, from the strained conditions of the Japanese occupation and the politically charged situation in Indonesia from his previous works, does not alter the turbulence present in Aw’s latest world. It is a chaotic one, in both the deceptively dazzling streets of Shanghai, and the even less defined interior lives of its inhabitants. The thematic focus for Aw has not changed. Each narrative seems to ask the same questions: of the unreliability of recollection, of the non-linear framework of time, and most importantly, of an individual’s inability to reconcile his past and present. Like the nature of memory represented through the very form of the novel, one knows not where to begin.
Indeed, it is difficult to begin from any one perspective without uncovering its relationship to another, and all the characters are linked to each other, one way or another. Justin, an established property man experiencing hard times, finds himself unable to forget his brother’s former girlfriend Leong Yinghui, herself a former idealist who is trying to make her way in the business world, hopefully through a partnership with enigmatic Walter Chao, the man with a questionable background who manages to charm Phoebe Xu Aiping, a young woman fashioning a new image through the questionable use of self-help books and ill-conceived fabrications, who manages her cyber-and ironically-honest relationship with a singer named Gary, who has personally orchestrated the destruction of his promising music career. And with each individual struggling with his or her immigrant past(s), the realities are multiple and multiplying, as with the selves present in each separate memory.
As we trace the disparate links between these distinct characters, the connections in this complex web of relationships—forged and unmade so easily sometimes to the point of absurdity—are surprisingly devoid of any attempt at realism. As Gary finds Phoebe amongst the millions of other QQ users, one gets the sense that it is almost too convenient, too contrived. Likewise, Yinghui’s transition from an idealist to capable businesswoman, and Justin’s fall in the opposite direction has the makings of a conventional soap opera. That time may pass so quickly and change a person makes the subject matter even more perplexing, especially when put across in Aw’s laconic manner of speech.
Yet, what is the narrative of an immigrant in China supposed to entail? Indeed, these characters struggle with adaptation, simply because their personalities resist the very possibility of change. Each of them, well developed in the terms of their past, unsatisfied selves, remain properly unchanged through the course of the novel. We may find it hard to empathise with them, even as each character shares his or her joys and fears that are all the more inauthentic because of its very evident possibility. Yet, even if their personas may appear to be counterfeits in the mould of Phoebe’s expensive handbag, their fragility, in the face of an uncompromising society, is startlingly real.
It is this purposeful attempt at purposelessness that reveals Aw’s possible intentions. Perhaps, this excessive layering of inauthentic realities is a ploy which reflects the aimless, drifting nature of each character even as they struggle, in their different ways, to exert a form of order in their memories of a distant past and the present physical reality of Shanghai. Both realities are, ironically, unstable structures, of which mirrors their own uncertain futures. Perhaps, Aw’s characters do not feel real, simply because like their fronts, everything else is artificially constructed. And it is here that Aw’s craft is most apparent, as he tempers, with much subtlety and finesse, his social commentary with the experimental form of his text. The restoration of heritage buildings is one of the many motifs embedded within the narrative, as Shanghai undergoes a transition from the old to the modern.
In the end, one cannot escape the uncanny sensation of having participated in a plane of reality that is far removed from the present. Each of the characters engages and subsequently distances from a series of questions concerning the representations of his or her ill-formed identities. Disappointments are uncovered, even as old habits are rediscovered and then forgotten again. By masterfully weaving together these different threads of narrative, Aw offers us a glimpse of the other face of Shanghai; that beneath the splendour and bright city lights, the struggle is painful and real, even if the characters are not.
Tash Aw. Five Star Billionaire. London: Fourth Estate, 2013.
Ho Jia Xuan is currently a postgraduate student in literature at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.