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Bone (Fae Myenne Ng)

February 16, 2010

One of the most unusual attributes of Ng’s novel is the backwards chronology (each chapter chronologically precedes the one before it). I think this form nicely parallels the central event of the novel: Ona’s suicide. In Ng’s novel, Ona’s suicide is at the heart of the family’s breakage and Leila’s issues regarding marriage (among other things). It has cast a shadow across all of their lives, tainting their memories and embittering them in various ways. The backward chronology of the novel places the suicide squarely in the middle of everything by making it the focus from the very beginning. Leila brings it up on the very first page, and from that point forward every mention of Ona, every detail about her unhappiness or her relationships is highlighted because of Leila’s previous introduction of it as the event that altered the family irreparably. Besides that, the first 8 chapters deal with the aftermath of Ona’s suicide and its many repercussions (some of which are more obvious while others would not ordinarily appear connected except that Leila makes those connections for the reader); then, three entire chapters are spent on the suicide and Ona’s funeral (the immediate effects); finally, the last three chapters are devoted to pre-suicide life…but Ona still plays a key role in that life and all of her unhappinesses and difficulties are once again highlighted as key focal moments. In other words, Ng’s novelistic structure is a formal match for the novel’s primary catastrophe.

On a completely different note, I really enjoyed the fact that the novel took place in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bay Area in general — since I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the city during the past few years, being lucky enough to have friends who live there, I was familiar with most of the businesses and locations the characters visited. This added another dimension to the novel for me because I was able to firmly situate myself within the novel’s world in a way that’s different from the imagination-based way I do that when I read a book about an unfamiliar location.

I also thought Ng’s representation of the immigrant’s struggle was very well-rounded and portrayed a wide variety of different first- and second-generation immigrant experiences. Mah’s story is one very particular story: a woman who comes to America with her husband, is abandoned, and finds another man to marry in order to gain citizenship so she can raise her children here. She works in a sweatshop and eventually begins her own business. Leon’s story is another: a man who comes to America by purchasing a paper identity, and therefore his citizenship. Then, of course, there are Mah’s daughters — each one with a different attitude and a different set of problems…and a different relationship to and attitude toward her Chineseness. Unlike Okada’s No-No Boy, where different characters feel like they’re types more than they feel like they’re people, Ng’s characters seem like real people. They represent certain experiences, but are harder to put into boxes (although I think it’s too reductive to say that Okada’s characters are only types, as they are complex and have depth as well).

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