“Reading Alex Kuo is best done twice.” — Robert Wallace
With characters on opposite sides of the Pacific, Alex Kuo’s The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze may have some of its readers on opposite sides of its equations.
Published last year by Haven Books, if one chases the various reviews of this mathematical novel with doppelganger protagonists—some love it, some damn it!—it was laughingly mentioned to me by the man behind the math that a comment thread starts to emerge:
What does the math have to do with it?, or, I didn’t get the math.
Or, as I noticed, the reviewer tends to sidestep the math, in this case perhaps begging the question of what we each take away from a particular work.
If the interpretation that resonates for one reader tends to demote an aspect another equally careful reader thinks key, who is to finally say which reading is the most apt or relevant? And, either reader’s focus and/or opinion might alter on a second or fourth reading.
Kuo is so fun, because he’s one of those authors who dares his readers to work but then rewards with insightful, multicultural, social/political commentary and inherent writing lessons, and, in this case, math class. He can be extremely sensitive, vitriolic, or screamingly funny on the page. The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze may send you Googling to recollect your Chinese history and geography, and the math certainly isn’t soft on the typical English major, like me. I’ll admit, I find his writing initially daunting, but then I get jazzed up about it.
However, a review by Vijay Fafat (included in a mathematical fiction roundup compiled by Alex Kasman of College of Charleston) went more like:
Loved the math, but I didn’t really get the story.
Gotta love it. It puts me somewhat in mind of Irish writer Jennifer Johnston’s novel Two Moons. A lover of Shakespeare might have strong opinions about the implications for the story, yet another might say, nifty story about three generations of women but I don’t get the point of the damn ghost.
First published in 1961, Alex Kuo is the author of ten books—five collections of poetry, including A Chinaman’s Chance (2011, Wordcraft of Oregon); two collections of stories, including Lipstick and Other Stories (2001, Asia 2000 Ltd.), which received the American Book Award; and three novels, including The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze (2011, Haven Books), the second in the Ge trilogy. Book eleven, The Other China, is due this fall from Blacksmith Books. (Anyone else feel like a slacker?) He has lived in the United States, Hong Kong, and China, spending most of World War II in the latter. (Author photo by Robert Hubner.)
In this Time Out Hong Kong interview by Steven Hsieh, Alex Kuo talks about writing The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze, including how the female lead character Ge was born of a photo he took while in Chengdu (he’s also a professional photographer).
If you’re lucky to be there, Alex Kuo will lecture at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference at Centrum this July.
xo Laurel Leigh
4 responses to “Dammed if he does . . .”
Laurel, you’ve been “liked” by the China Daily Mail. Interesting. :o)
I’m so happy that China Daily Mail stopped by and liked the post! Alex Kuo is a worthy topic. I think his work is so important and I appreciated the chance to write about it. Last year I reviewed his poetry collection, A Chinaman’s Chance, for Bloomsbury Review.
Thanks, China Daily Mail! http://chinadailymail.com/
I think you might enjoy it! You should definitely check it out.
Laurel, Since I’m an engineer AND a writer, this sounds like it might be the book for me. Thanks for the review!