Local author launches his melancholy coming-of-age tale at strip club.
// Sasha Lakic

Growing up in the West is supposedly a privilege. There is, for the most part, no civil war, easy access to education, and hope of good work prospects after finishing school. Local author Kevin Chong’s new novel, Beauty Plus Pity, paints another picture: through the main character Malcolm, Chong brings forth the unseen struggles that do afflict the most privileged. He also showcases the dynamics of immigrant families and how, with respect to work, they are changing for good or ill. However, not all is bad.

Inspired by his own mid-twenties turmoil, Chong shows an apparently recurring theme of a sputtering growing-up process of Vancouver’s young adults, and their struggle to make a living in desultory professions. “I think the book is reflective of today’s slow maturation and what it’s like to essentially become a person,” Chong explains.

He even pulls a connection between the struggles of a writing career, and Malcolm’s at-times questionable attempts to succeed as a model. Both professions, nested in respective beauty, are unstable at best of times and are always at the mercy – maybe pity – of the public.

The book’s title theme is even reflected in its own launch, which took place at the Penthouse Night Club on Sept. 19. “The place has a great history and I just thought it would be good idea to have the launch there. Also, being a strip club, it has those underlining factors of beauty and pity which connect well with the book,” says Chong.

The idea for the book came to Chong about ten years ago when he was roughly Malcolm’s age— 26. However, he put it on the backburner because of other projects, which included a book on Neil Young’s literal route to success, and another coming-of-age novel named Baroque- a-Nova.

If there ever was a worst-case scenario in a life of a male in his mid-twenties, Beauty Plus Pity depicts it perfectly. Malcolm, after losing his father to cancer and his fiancĂ©e to a bisexual doctor, has to find a way to get back into a normal daily routine: something that he has really never had. His mother is preoccupied with her own artistic neuroticism and, to top it off, he learns that he has a 17-year-old half-sister – a product of his father’s affair.

Even though Malcolm was educated in private school, he has failed to expand on his education or secure a worthwhile profession, partly because of his own lack of impetus, but also because of his parents’ insistence that he pursue a writing career. As expected, the last thing he wants to do is cede to his parents’ wishes, both of whom are artists. Alternately, it could be that his middle-class upbringing has brought about a lack of drive.

This is in contrast with the typical immigrant experience, one that is highly influenced by ambition and everyday survival, where losing a day of work might result in going hungry. Malcolm Kwan’s experience is atypical of growing up in a Chinese immigrant household since his parents, as expected, are pushing him, but not into a stable, well-paying job. Instead, they are pushing him to “become more bohemian,” as Chong puts it.

After his father’s death, Malcolm’s discontent towards his elders’ wishes turns more active. Despite his mother’s orders to do otherwise, he resolves to establish a good relationship with the half-sister that he never knew. It would just so happen that the connection between the half-siblings produces Malcolm’s only functional relationship.

Like every other case when a man finally starts actively taking charge of his life, good things come to fruition. When Malcolm finally comes into his own, he begins to realize what he wants in life, rather than concentrating on what he does not want. It’s as if Malcolm, the passive-aggressive idler, morphs into his own voiced man. This newfound confidence also allows Malcolm to resolve issues in his past. After a surprise run-in with an ex-girlfriend, he finally gets the opportunity to hash out their ugly break-up, the cause of his past petulance.

The pity that is officially covered in the second part of the book – but also sprinkled throughout – fills the fragile shell of beauty, the pursuit of which is as the very centre of the narrative. Malcolm’s chronic melancholy can most certainly be tracked to his parents who failed at creating beauty on their own, and who, in the process, neglected their son on a very basic level. Malcolm is left out to ramble in an emotional wasteland where he seeks to recreate normalcy, but fails because he does not know how. What he does learn is that life is best dealt with pragmatism, and that one must roll with the punches, regardless of past failures. Although our first impression of Malcolm’s life is one of broken dreams and their consequences, he inadvertently succeeds at growing up, and even by way of much pity, manages to see and live out life’s beauty.

Beauty Plus Pity was officially launched by Arsenal Pulp Press on Monday, September 19th. It is available at bookstores such as People’s Coop Books and Chapters.

// Sasha Lakic

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