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Book Review: Lipstick And Other Stories by Alex Kuo

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In Lipstick and Other Stories, the turn of a page or two can turn shoulder-shrugging ennui and head-scratching perplexity into an edifying tug at mind and emotions. And back again.

Constituting, in a fittingly plucked quote, a “continuum breaking down into disconnected fragments,” the wavering and wafer-thin personal and history-derived impressionistic vignettes that make up Alex Kuo’s collection too often settle on being arts-sake abstract and undernourished. Winner of the 2002 American Book Award, Kuo’s collection shines most brightly when an over-reliance on cryptic whimsy and blasts of dreamscape consciousness gives ground to a more earthbound, bare-bones realism.

As a unifying force, the consideration of contemporary China overarches all the seesawing and metaphorical hemming and hawing as Lipstick hopscotches from poetic and philosophical ruminations, political fulminations and more prosaic flat-line fare.

With the Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen Square as subjects and reference points, Kuo, a writer-in-residence at Washington State University who was born in Boston but raised in China during World War II, divides these very short stories into three sections. The first contains the narrator’s hazy recollection of relocation and his mother’s disappearance in China, followed by ever-shifting, surreal experimental pieces set in both China and America, and ending up with more lucidly told private and universally applied contemplations of ideology, dissidence and survival.

Whatever the telling or recollection, though, it may not be so much the remembrance of things past as remembrance passed along, altered and altering. “Since memory is also inventive,” Kuo maintains in “Past Perfect Tense,” “it can now realign what has happened in that one moment in the past and allow me to walk away from its significant rubble. It is a prodigal hand forever reaching out, mending.”

And maybe smacking him around a little, too. After the storyteller has moved on from such rubble as a flooded Yangtze River, marching soldiers and a mysterious funeral, he finds that he now wants to tell his story “in the third person, but it came out in the first; he wanted to tell it in the past, but it came out happening in the now.”

From such disorientation comes such Monty-Python-in-Wonderland tales as a man digging from China all the way to the other side of the world, greeted by a welcoming committee and given the key to a city. In another story, the government has deducted 10 years from every citizen’s age, but nobody knows which 10 years from their lives they have lost.

Most of the time, these flights of the imagination run aground. “The Catholic All-Star Chess Team,” for instance, has an amusing premise with such characters as Vincent Lombardi and Paul Klee involved in a big tournament, but the whimsical conceit has a tenuous connection to a forced and portentous conclusion.

The more reality-based stories, whether serious or played for laughs, prove to be more expressive and effective. In the barbed title story, Chinese dissidents living in comfort in the United States have become so media-savvy that they put on makeup for the cameras at demonstrations in order to look “young, energetic and dedicated to democracy.” The tenderness and compassion shown in the cohesive “Shapes” stems from the crossroads emotions of a married couple in China, seeing their marriage as a mask and being overwhelmed by “the little disturbances that made things go wrong.”

Such pointedness and poignancy emerging from the patchiness of Lipstick constitute its greatest strength and saving grace.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch