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5.0 out of 5 stars An Ingeniously Conceived Modern Myth, October 30, 2002
This review is from: Edinburgh (Hardcover)
Alexander Chee's first novel is the tale of a demon fox who is finally captured. Aphias Zee or Fee is an American of Korean and Scottish descent. In early age Fee's grandfather tells him the tale of Lady Tammamo, a fox who fell in love and, after being ridiculed by the community after her husband's death, engulfed herself and her husband's body in flames. He believes himself to be a fox in the shape of a man. Greek mythology informs his destiny as well, subtly setting the stage upon which the events of his life play. Yet, above the decorous theatre is a profoundly human story of Fee's experience growing up in Maine and, along with eleven other boys, suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a Boys Chorus instructor named Big Eric. Sex and suicide surround Fee through his entire adolescence and teenage years. He learns somehow to survive with the elements of creation and death orbiting him constantly, but it is an empty sort of existence for him. Passion is expended on lovers he doesn't care for. The guilt of his former instructor attaches itself to him as he discovers quickly that he is a homosexual himself. His natural desire is tragically intertwined with the other's perversity. His first love, Peter, becomes for him a distorted mirror image of all he is not: blonde, straight and freed by death. Thus, he embarks on an endless struggle to merge with this image, to fall into it, be devoured and emerge cleansed by flame. Despite surviving (barely) through college, making close friends and finding a lover, Bridely, who he marries in a commitment ceremony, Fee is unable to escape from his past and the conception of his own destiny militated by his demon fox spirit. He is paired finally with a spectre from the past and the mirror image he longed to meld into.
The first most striking quality of Chee's unique prose style is his use of metaphor. With a lyrical intensity, the world is shaped by Fee's subjective understand of what surrounds him. Like the best of Eudora Welty's stories, the author uses metaphor to beautifully invoke experience with hyper-intensive feeling. The most emotionally unsettling moments of the book are captured with startling imagery. These moments not only convey the essential elements of the story, but also distort the world in a way to disturb and inspire your conscious interpretation of it. The understanding of desire and love are wildly twisted to unsettle and force you to think of the nature of their meaning. You are pushed to re-evaluate your own experience: "Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it's the adult, moving forward, forgetting." The structure of the novel impresses the need for these contemplations all the more. The first person, present tense of the narration impresses a sense of immediacy relevant for the dramatization of the characters' consciousness. Noticeably, the quotation marks of speech are experimentally removed letting the words uttered float freely in the air along with the sensitive impressions of the characters' thoughts. Yet, Chee's impressive expansion of the novels form does not delineate from the impact of the tale told. Although it is anything but a light read, it is still a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable novel. This is anything but a common coming of age story. The book is packed with intense, fully realised characters each of whom radiate a need to have their own stories told. The primary setting of Maine, so often an idyllic stage in fiction, is depicted as a troubled landscape, both turbulent and beautiful. It is interesting the final scene takes place in Cape Elizabeth's Fort Williams, an army fort well stocked in WWII that never witnessed the battles it was prepared to face. Now it is a popular park. The ruins left may speak more for the characters they surround than the characters speak for themselves. Sparkling with impressive imagery and powerful wisdom, Edinburgh is an incredible artistic accomplishment and a powerful debut.
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