MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.1 (2005) 110-133
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Domestic and National Secrets in Fae Myenne Ng's Bone
At first glance, it would appear that we could read Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone as a sequel of sorts to Louis Chu's novel Eat a Bowl of Tea. If Eat a Bowl of Tea charts the tumultuous transformation of New York Chinatown from bachelor society to family community in the middle of the twentieth century, Bone would seem to represent the late-twentieth-century result of that transformation. Eat a Bowl of Tea portrays the waning years of Wang Wah Gay and his fellow Chinatown "bachelors,"1 men whose labor was recruited by the United States and who ended up unable to establish families in the US. The homosociality of this bachelor society, whose members are past their productive years, is marked in Chu's novel by acts of gambling, gossiping, joking, and cursing. The settling of Wang's son Ben Loy with his new bride in Chinatown represents the hope of renewal for a community previously unable to reproduce itself through conventional family formation: the old men wait anxiously and collectively for a grandchild to signify a sense of future they have otherwise been denied. Bone features Leila Fu, just such a grandchild of an old "bachelor," as its narrator.2 Moreover, Ng's novel is set in San Francisco, the city where the newly married couple of Eat a Bowl of Tea must relocate to start anew. Rather than a site of regeneration, how [End Page 110] ever, San Francisco's Chinatown proves to be the site of loss and melancholia. In Eat a Bowl of Tea, family represents the potential for moving forward into the future; in Bone, family and narrative remain haunted by, and move back into, the past. Therefore, rather than reading Chu's and Ng's texts according to a logic of sequential, historical time, in which the present naturally follows and fully replaces the past, I propose instead a temporal paradigm based on the notion of text as palimpsest, as multilayered surface. Bone's narrative is structured palimpsestically, in a chronology that moves back in time to reveal what lies underneath the events that Leila narrates in the novel's beginning. This palimpsestic structure is characteristic of melancholia, a condition in which an object that should be relegated to the past is instead psychically kept alive in the present. By comprehending how time is layered such that the past is not erased but remains in the present, a palimpsestic reading practice offers an alternative to modern conceptions of time as horizontal and continuous. Benedict Anderson, quoting Walter Benjamin, observes that this "homogeneous, empty" (Benjamin 262) time of modernity is also the time of the nation and that subjects of the nation are constituted within the horizontal simultaneity of this national time. In this essay, I show how Ng's melancholic temporality critiques modern notions of subjectivity and history, especially as formulated by the nation-state.3 Ng's novel reveals what is in excess of the national symbolic, what remains after national history and national subjectivity are narrated through modern trajectories of development and progress.
The subject of modernity and nation is defined by a certain kind of relationship to time: she participates in recalling the collective memory that has been narrated as national history. This memory is selective, consisting of that which provides ideological support for the nation, so that, as Ernest Renan suggests, she is also obligated to forget.4 Remembering—that is, "remembering to forget" (Khanna 12)—is a process of incorporating the past into the symbolic of national history. Psychoanalytic theory teaches us, however, that the process of symbolization always produces its remainder or surplus—in this case, the forgotten. Unassimilated and unresolved, the remainder always returns to haunt the symbolic. Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok build upon Freud's theory of melancholia to elaborate on this haunting of the remainder. According to Freud, melancholia is the condition...