The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
As an undergrad I took this class called “The Fiction of Relationship,” which my double-entendre pun-loving self rejoiced in all semester: books of fiction about relationship, and also the fiction of believing that relationship could exist—already steeped big-eyed in the idea that we can never really know one another, I clutched my copy of Absalom, Absalom! in one discussion section and gestured at the space between me and my classmate on the next stool, a hot jock in high-end leisure-wear who I’d known since freshman year and often described as from a completely different world, someone I’d never bother attempting to know.
I did not mention then but thought also of the faux-Buddhist undergrad men, how many of them had told me they adored me, but we can never truly know another person, and so, they reasoned, we never needed to talk about what was up with us or that kind of weird sex we’d had, how I felt shat on—let’s be the bodies we are without trying to bridge the gap, one said, stroking the skin behind my ear, it’s a futile attempt.
This attempt, this bother of attempting to know—this is what first caught me in Esmé Weijun Wang’s, The Border of Paradise, a courageous book in innumerable ways, not the least of which in its willingness to believe in relationships that cannot or should not exist by all expectations or means or senses of easefulness.
Beginning at the childhood of one family’s patriarch, David Nowak, the novel traces the story of relations between people who do not understand each other, understand each other too deeply, and imagine their way toward an insularity that violently forces understanding. After a ravenously anxious childhood, one in which his own mental illness alienates him from a small immigrant community, David travels to Taiwan, where he marries Jia-Hui, renames her Daisy, and sets up a deeply isolated life with her near the Yuba River, back in California, where both struggle to communicate across his nonexistent Taiwanese and her limited English—and, even in their disconnects, mesh the formalities that they understand to mean marriage.
“I wondered why I’d set such traps for myself,” says David, “I was living with someone whom I loved, but in so many ways she was a stranger to me, and with our handicapped communication I felt lonelier than ever.” The relation itself is the trap here, the situation that sets up the possibility of feeling disconnected. There is no disconnect without.
And so loneliness and solitude pursue each successive character in this family, even as children follow and the shifting narrators of the book turn the perspective and turn it again. Each time the perspective shifts, I have the sense of seeing a new human, one I have never been able to see from inside their own head, can only see from the outside—how little I know them, actually, despite the acute intimacy Wang develops with her unflinching gaze on visceral detail—race, mental illness, and violence.
This violence comes in an inter-relational sense—the violence characters do to one another in their attempts to fuse and feel related—but also in a racial sense, in the subtle touch Wang uses to portray the inside of an oft-stereotyped relationship between a white man who takes an Asian woman as his wife. As David says, “She was exotic to me, and that was the primary pleasure I derived from her, I confess.” This at the start of a chapter skillfully titled, “Eroticism,” in which we enter the realm of the erotic and sexual first through David’s journey to find something so unfamiliar that he cannot blame himself—or his own mental illness—for not knowing it fully.
And so the erotic in this book is never unwoven from the exotic; exotic in the sense of being introduced from afar into a native space. The Nowaks choose very carefully what they will—and will not—introduce into their isolated rural life in Northern California, and once incorporated, the objects—or people—in their home must submit to being known, or be blamed for their innate or desired foreignness.
“...You do not fully understand the essence of the situation,” Daisy says to her daughter Gillian at one point, “The clear purpose of this life is that you and your brother will be…all that is truly meaningful in the world for each other.”
What is it to create relations that can be fully, completely fulfilling—in the sense of filling a person up, completely—and what is it to create relations with a person to be completely known? David and Daisy make this attempt to a horrific extent, an extent that—without giving away too much—leaves the people in their wake forced to cleave together, profoundly afraid of that which remains insistently unknown beyond their cabin.
While at a Natural History Museum in one rare experience of the world outside the Nowak cabin, Gillian observes of the other people with her: “The museum had been nothing to them. It had been one more thing that they already knew to their bones.” She is overwhelmed with this, by the amount of information and experience that others have already taken into their bodies that she has not, the nothings that are somethings to her, somethings to have to face as exotic, new—to be in relationship with as something apart from her own body.
My partner and I, we like to read books together when we are on vacation. As in, we lie with a single book open in front of us and we read silently, me finishing each page a few moments before he does and waiting to turn the page until he’s ready.
It’s a special treat, he smiles at me, to get to share an experience so closely. Determined since the beginning of our relationship never to fuse completely, always wanting to give each other space for separateness, it’s a rare moment we do something so closely together, pausing at the end of a page, both at the same time wondering what happens next.
We read Wang’s book together in this way last January, and he grew frustrated with me when I gasped at the high-drama moments at the end of a page he hadn’t finished yet. Wait, he mumbled half-consciously as he swatted my way, wait for me, and I felt how I was ruining it, the sweet illusion that—even so close side by side—we could share the experience completely.
Or: I remember that first time I understand there was something sexy in the Bible, how I was instructed about the way that God refers to sex: Abraham knew Sarah, and she soon became pregnant. The verb always followed by gestation in a neat, determined story. And so I learned that to know another person was to invade their body in a way that creates life, to initiate an action in which we know what happens next.
Adam knew Eve, and she conceived. I remember a sense of prisoned, predictable security at this, reading and knowing what would happen next. A knowing and a desire for control that Wang’s book throws up in fire. –Leora Fridman