Versus Convention, Versus the Expected: Reading May-Lan Tan

may-lan tan covers

I was in Portland earlier this year and, not surprisingly, I was in Powell’s making the rounds. I ended up in the small press section and noticed a book by one May-Lan Tan. Below it was a note stating that this was a British edition, and that Powell’s was the only place in the US where it could be purchased. Combine my fondness for a good staff pick (especially if Kevin Sampsell was the one doing the recommending) with my eyes being drawn to the Gordon Lish blurb on the back, and I was sold. That was how I came to own a copy of May-Lan Tan’s collection Things to Make and Break.

Then, I fucked up. Well, I didn’t fuck up, per se, but: it took me far longer than expected to get to it. I’d also ordered a pack of chapbooks from Future Tense, one of which was Tan’s book Girly. Somehow, though, I didn’t put two and two together and realized that the author of this two-story chapbook was the same author whose book I’d picked up in Oregon earlier in the year. Tan was in town recently to give a few readings; I wasn’t able to make it to them, but the rapturous terms in which I heard those readings piqued my interest dramatically, then caused me to realize that I had both of her books in front of me. Problem solved. Then I read both; then, I was utterly floored.

Tan focuses on characters contorting themselves, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes both. In cases where he structures are more traditional, the arrangements are still varied: she’ll make use of fractured chronology, or of omissions of certain events that prove crucial. As reader, you may find gaps that call out to be bridged, with the reasons for those spaces left for you to figure out. At other times, she borrows structures from entirely nonliterary forms: one of the stories in Girly, “Pacific,” takes its basic structure from a recipe. But given that it’s a story partially about its central character attempting to gain control over her own situation, that sense that something else is manipulating events accentuates the mood dramatically.

She also does things in here that have no business working, yet do. “Candy Glass,” from Things to Make and Break, is written in a style that blends first-person narration with elements of the screenplay format. Written out, this doesn’t inspire confidence; on the page, though, it works perfectly. It’s hard to say why, though the subject matter–an actress who begins a relationship with her stunt double, who has her own complex personal history. For something set in the film industry and focused in part on appearances, this structure seems ideal.

Tan’s characters are flawed, sometimes fascinatingly; that one person notes, “When I grow up, I want to be a disease,” is more par for the course than an exception. There are neglectful parents, ill-considered affairs, repression, and attempts to cope with horrific situations. In May-Lan Tan’s fiction, even the familiar becomes fresh, and even the most unsympathetic receive empathy. The thirteen stories found in these two books is a fantastic introduction to a writer in the process of teaching us new ways of reading.

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