Bedsharing, without Sex or Romance : Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu in Way of Choices

Mo Yu and Chen Changsheng in Fighter of the Destiny, which is the live action TV adaptation of Way of Choices

There are many things I love in the novel Way of Choices (it’s my favorite novel that I read in 2018). One of them is the relationship between Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu. And one of the things I love about the relationship is that they are a young man and a young woman who are not genetically related yet share a bed – without ever having sex or even being interested in having sex with each other.

What genre is this novel?

Xuanhuan.

Whatever the heck that is.

If you want a clue, you could watch the opening theme song to the live action adaptation (even though it’s not faithful to the novel).

Chen Changsheng is a naive, idealist, honest, wholesome, bookwormish, and gentle teenager with a terminal illness, and Mo Yu is a conniving, cynical, physically strong, and ruthless government official who is primarily concerned with maintaining her (high) level of political power. Nobody would expect these two to become friends – and this is before we get to the fact that Mo Yu wants Chen Changsheng to die (or at least be imprisoned or exiled).

And yet, in spite of the above, they come to share a bed. Continue reading

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Burning Out as a Critic of Ace Fiction

This is for the December 2018 Carnival of Aces “Burnout”.

As some of you know, I went on a 6-12 month binge on ace fiction / ace fiction reviewing / commenting on ace fiction, and you can find those posts by checking out my ‘asexual fiction’ and ‘ace fiction’ tags (no, I am not good at keeping my tags consistent), and it culminated in me writing a bunch of posts for The Asexual Agenda’s Ace Tropes series.

I never expected to keep that all up indefinitely, in fact I am surprised that I kept that up for as long as I did. Before I did a lot of ace fiction criticism, Ace Reads reviewed a lot of ace fiction books, and I got started around the time Agent Aletha burned out. Now, I’m in a position where I can relate to parts of this post about not reviewing so many ace books anymore. I particular, I really relate to this part: “I haven’t even been reading many ace books because I’m not in the mood for romance stories and that is so much of what’s available”. Continue reading

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 2)

Zhong Ling (He Meitian) and Duan Yu (Benny Chan) are buried alive in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997

In Part 1, I described the disunity of the plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (TLBB). This has not stopped it from being one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 20th century. So does the disunity of the plot help or hinder readers from liking the story?

First of all, even though the story lacks plot unity, it does have thematic unity. To quote Wikipedia:

The main thematic element of the novel concerns the complex, troubled relationships between the great multitude of characters from various empires and martial arts sects, and the inherent bond that underlies the struggles of each. The novel examines the cause and effect that forms and breaks these bonds on five uniquely corresponding levels: self, family, society, ethnic group, and country (dominion).

A lot of Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories are about forming and breaking various sorts of bonds (one could say that Duan Yu’s romantic entanglements with his sisters form and break bonds simultaneously). Perhaps plot unity does not matter as long as there is thematic unity.

Gao Hu as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

That description from Wikipedia seems to characterize TLBB as being a literary novel. And sure, it’s totally possible to interpret TLBB in a literary way. It’s also possible to interpret TLBB as a lurid pulp novel full of violence and sadism, all designed to shock yet entice the reader. A lot of it reads like a tabloid. Perhaps when there is enough titillating content to sustain interest (assuming that the reader hasn’t dropped the book in horror), readers care less about plot unity.

It is also possible to interpret TLBB as a comedy, which is how I personally view it (yes, there is a sick streak in my sense of humor). (I would rather not watch the TV adaptations of TLBB with other people because I don’t want them to see me laugh at, say, a woman who kidnaps children and kills them). (There is so much gratuitous horribleness in TLBB that if I didn’t laugh at it, I might be the one to drop the book in horror).

However, those are all possibilities for how TLBB might succeed in spite of plot disunity. Does the plot disunity increase the appeal of the story in any way? Maybe.

Liu Yifei as Wang Yuyan in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Tobias recommends limiting the number of main characters. Jin Yong totally ignores this guideline; someone tried to count the number of characters in TLBB and found there were over 200. Most of those are minor characters, but there are still plenty of main characters other than Duan Yu / Qiao Feng / Xuzhu, as well as many supporting characters who play a pivotal role at some point. In fact, those of you who understand Chinese know that the number ‘eight’ appears in the Chinese title of the story. That refers to the eight main characters, who each supposedly represent a type of Deva or Naga, just as each of the seven main characters in Seven Ways We Lie represents one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism. Tobias says that too many main characters is bad because it’s not possible to develop enough of the connections between them. Well, maybe a 200-page novel can’t forge enough connections between eight main characters (though honestly, Seven Ways We Lie is about 300 pages long yet did a decent job with seven main characters), but TLBB is more than two thousand pages long.

There is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters between the three stories (for example, Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu are all supporting characters in each others’ stories). Thus, by having three stories in the same novel, the novel can use a large cast of characters more effectively than if it were split into three novels. When, say, supporting characters from Duan Yu’s story appears in Qiao Feng’s story, there is no need to establish who they are, the readers already know them.

Sharon Yeung as Mu Wanqing and Kent Tong as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It is satisfying to see how the seemingly separate stories of the three protagonists connect with each other. The family trees get pretty convoluted, not to mention all of the love polygons, or the student-teacher relationships, or the … friendship polygons? Is that a thing? Each time I revisit the story, I uncover some interesting relationship which escaped my notice before, which increases the re-readability/re-watchability of the story.

The disunity also makes it much easier to stash Chekhov’s Guns. A Chekhov’s Gun which is displayed in Xuzhu’s story might end up firing in Duan Yu’s story.

And the three stories help balance each other out.

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are… I hesitate to use the word ‘light’ considering some of the things which happen, but they are… ‘amusing’? For example, Duan Yu’s potentially incestuous relationships are generally treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner, not as something unspeakably horrible. If Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories were separated out into separate stories, they would be among Jin Yong’s ‘lighter’ novels, like Ode to Gallantry.

Felix Wong as Qiao Feng in one of the few parts of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997 where Qiao Feng is actually happy.

By contrast, Qiao Feng’s story is a real downer. One bad thing happens to him, then something worse happens to him, usually something he neither deserves nor has much control over. There are a few points where things seem to get better for him, and he starts feeling hopeful – which means his hopes can totally be dashed again. Even though he shares the novel with Duan Yu and Xuzhu, TLBB is still the most tragic (or tragicomic) of Jin Yong’s novels because Qiao Feng is in it, and if his story was placed in a separate novel, it would be too much. I wouldn’t want to read that novel.

(Actually, I don’t think I would like Xuzhu’s story as a separate novel either, but that’s mainly because I don’t care for stories about celibate vegetarian teetotalers being coerced into drinking alcohol, eating meat, and having sex).

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are lacking in gravitas, while Qiao Feng has too much, so it evens out. One can see this in the casting decisions for the TV adaptations. Generally, the directors/producers will choose actors with pretty faces to play Duan Yu and Xuzhu, whereas an actor who has prestige for his acting ability will be cast as Qiao Feng. The classic example of this is Felix Wong – in 1982, when he was mainly seen as a young actor with a cute face, he was cast as Xuzhu. In 1997, when he was known as one of Hong Kong’s most respected actors, he was cast as Qiao Feng.

Felix Wong as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It looks like my view is ‘disunity helps rather than hinders the plot of TLBB’. But this may be more of an exception to Tobias’ guidelines rather than a refutation. After all, even in really long novels (which I am familiar with), this type of plot disunity is not the norm, and it’s usually spit in two rather than three parallel storylines (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the dual protagonists Prince Andrei Bolkonsky / Pierre Bezukhov, and Anna Karenina, with Anna Karenina / Kostya Lëvin, come to mind). I think that, even in a really long novel, a disunited plot is probably more difficult to use successfully than a united plot.

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 1)

The copy of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which I read in Taiwan looked exactly like this. You can see that this edition is 10 volumes long.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the book 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias claims that any story plot can be summarized by a single question. This is certainly true of many stories, perhaps most stories, but the very first counterexample which came to mind was Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù, from now on abbreviated as TLBB). I cannot think of any question which can summarize the whole plot, except for vague questions such as ‘will the protagonists find their place in the world?’ or ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ which are so vague that they tell you little about the story (honestly, I think the latter question is the more informative one). Contrast that to a specific question like ‘will Othello believe that Iago is telling the truth about his wife?’ which is what Tobias claims is the central question of Othello. And forget about “>Tobias’ plot patterns. Even Way Of Choices can be classified as having an ‘Underdog’ plot with lots of plot arcs nested within it, including a huge ‘Quest’ plot – I don’t think it’s possible to claim that TLBB has a single dominant plot pattern.

[General spoiler warning: this post will contain some spoilers for Demi-gods and Semi-Devils. I’ve edited out the huge spoilers, but this ain’t going to be spoiler-free]

Jimmy Lin as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Every summary I’ve seen of TLBB is split into three parts, one part for each protagonist (Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu). That is because it is very difficult to come up with a coherent plot summary without treating each protagonist separately. In fact, by the guidelines set out by Tobias, TLBB actually has three different plots (Tobias does not recommend having multiple plots in a single work of fiction).

Can I come up with a single question to summarize each protagonist’s story? Maybe.

I’m still not sure I can come up with a better question to sum up Duan Yu’s story than ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ I mean, I suppose ‘who will Duan Yu marry and will he return home?’ covers most of his plot, but since that’s actually two questions I do not feel like that counts. And maybe instead of ‘who will Duan Yu marry?’ the question should be ‘will Duan Yu end up in an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters?’ because that is the point which is more interesting to many readers. Maybe the question is ‘will Duan Yu manage to come home without shaming his family by having incestuous relations with his sisters?’

Does Duan Yu’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? One could argue that it is an example of a ‘Maturation’ plot, but in my opinion it best fits the ‘Adventure’ pattern. Yes, Duan Yu does mature during the course of the story. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky, pacifist, naive, spoiled prince, and by the end he’s not even a prince anymore. But that is not the main focus of his plot. When I talk to people about TLBB, they don’t talk about how Duan Yu’s character changes, they talk about all of the wild shit that goes down during his travels. You can get a pretty good sense of what his travels are like just by looking at how his story begins – this is how it is portrayed in the TLBB 2003 (w/ Eng subs) (it’s much funnier in TLBB 1997 but there are no English subs).

Bryan Leung as Qiao Feng in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982.

I find it much easier to sum up Qiao Feng’s plot in a single question “Will Qiao Feng find his place among the Song Chinese people or among the Khitan people?” He considers himself to be Song Chinese and loyal to Song China, yet they exile him and try to kill him (partially because they believe he committed some murders). The Khitan people of the Liao empire accept him, but they are at war with Song China, and being loyal to Liao empire would mean hurting the [Song Chinese] people he swore to protect.

Does Qiao Feng’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? I think an argument could be made for ‘Quest’ or ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng seeks the truth about the past and present, and he seeks where he belongs (I lean towards ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng wants information more than he wants to change his life). He wants to know about his parents, and he also wants to find the real culprit behind the murders that he is accused of committing. (And no, even though Qiao Feng has some murders to ‘solve’, this is not a ‘Riddle’ plot because, when he learns who the real murderer is, it does not solve his problems at all).

Louis Fan as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997.

And then there is Xuzhu and his story. The basic question for his plot, I think is ‘will Xuzhu ever go back to living as a monk?’ Or rather ‘how will Xuzhu adjust to the end of his monastic life?’ since at some point the reader figures out that he is never going back. He wants to be a monk, but he keeps on being coerced to break his monastic vows (yes, that is a picture of Xuzhu in this old post of mine). Even though he does not break his vows of entirely of his own free will, other characters consider them just as broken as if he had willfully made those choices. I think his story has what Tobias would call a ‘Transformation’ plot.

Those of you who are familiar with the story may be wondering why I’m not classifying Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories as ‘Discovery’ plots. The answer is simple: Qiao Feng knows early on his story that he has some mysteries to solve. By contrast, Duan Yu and Xuzhu are completely oblivious to the skeletons in their families’ closets (well, Duan Yu isn’t completely oblivious, he just does not know enough to be concerned), so their plots aren’t about them seeking the truth. When they do learn The Horrible Truth, it hits them like anvils falling from the sky – they had no idea what was coming.

I think it is pretty clear that TLBB does not have a unified plot, at least not in a way that Tobias would recognize. It cannot be summed up by a single question (unless that question is uselessly vague), nor can it be said to fit any single dominant plot pattern. Heck, one could split up Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories, write them up as separate novels, and they would work at standalones (and come a lot closer to following Tobias’ guidelines for creating plots).

Yet does TLBB fail because of its disunited plot?

Every reader has their own opinion, but in terms of popularity, it is extremely successful. It is one of the most popular and widely read novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for TV five times (and at least three of those adaptations were very popular), which is to say nothing of the other adaptations. I have also met quite a few people who say that TLBB is one of their favorite novels.

Does this story appeal to so many people in spite of its disunited plot… or because of its disunited plot? That is the question I will address in Part 2.

Review: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

The book cover of Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Sara, it’s been forever since you’ve written a review of an ace fiction book.

It took me a while to feel like writing one again. Also, I had to start reading ace fiction books again to write more reviews.

What is this novel about?

Alice, a nineteen year old college student, is dumped by her girlfriend/dorm-mate Margot because Margot feels that Alice does not want to have sex with her (which is true, Alice was only consenting to sex with Margot to preserve their relationship). Alice knows she is asexual, but stays in the closet, and the way Margot dumped her reinforces her conviction not to tell people she’s ace. Then she meets her new co-worker, Takumi, and Alice has very strong feelings about him as soon as he meet him. Might some of those feelings be sexual attraction? Since Alice has definitely never experienced sexual attraction before, she does not know what the hell sexual attraction is supposed to feel like, how would she know? Meanwhile, her best friends, Feenie and Ryan, are going to get married, and Alice fears that as they become more of a couple they are pushing her away. And on top of all that, Alice’s parents and sister are pressuring her to declare her major and prepare to go to law school as soon as she finishes undergrad, and Alice totally does not want to do that.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novel?

There is no on-page sex. There is discussion of Alice’s sexual history, and later a bit of Takumi’s sexual history, as well as references to Feenie and Ryan’s (off-page) sex life. A stranger sexually harasses Alice. There is little in the way of physical violence, but quite a bit of emotional violence.

Tell me more about this novel.

The novel has a particular writing style/tone. I’m not sure how to describe it, so I’ll just spam you with quotes:

Alice had had her first creepy moment, crowning herself the creepiest Creepy McCreeperton in existence.

Was it really anyone’s business that Alice didn’t feel sexual attraction when the rest of the world did? It was Alice’s secret. She could guard it like Smaug hoarding gold if she wanted to.

Willy Wonka could wrap her in plastic, market her, and sell her as a limited edition fool-flavored candy.

He grinned, but was also wringing his hands. “But that’s not all it is, right? You like me as a person, too?”
It took everything Alice had not to laugh at the universe’s perverse sense of humor. Her Personal Living God of Confusing Attraction, Takumi, wanted to know if she, Asexual Alice, liked him as a person.

You might want to strap in for this ride I like to call Not Black Enough to Be the Black Sheep of Black Excellence.

I’m on that rapid weight-loss diet called Starvation Because I Spent My Last Six Dollars on Laundry.

Throughout the book, I was struck by how much Alice is unlike me. It was like being immersed in the head of someone who has a very different worldview. It meant I did not get the ‘this so represents me’ feeling, on the other hand it was interesting, and was a reminder that not everybody thinks like me. For example, Alice doesn’t like exercise and loves sitting on the couch and binge-watching TV shows. I love going on walks and hikes, and while I can enjoy watching TV for a hour to an hour-and-a-half, beyond that I will get restless (unless I am physically ill).

Sara, I think you are like Alice in that you like to write essays about TV shows.

That was years ago.

Oh really?

Okay, fine, I still write essays about TV shows once in a while.

And you also like to eat [vegan] ice cream in winter, and you also don’t like jogging.

Hey, I’m not saying I’m completely unlike Alice. After all, we’re both female aces living in California.

And the fact that I get such a clear sense of who Alice is so that it is so easy for me to compare her to myself demonstrates that she is a very vividly written character.

The main plot seemed to be about Alice’s developing relationship with Takumi. While I was interested in Alice sorting out her feelings and whether or not she was experiencing sexual attraction, that was only in focus in the first part of the novel, and I was not so terribly interested in Alice’s actual relationship with Takumi. There was a sub-plot about Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan, which was potentially much more interesting to me, except it was not fully developed. I think I would have found this story much more interesting if Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan had been the main plot, and her relationship with Takumi had been the sub-plot.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as an 8.

Alice’s experience with asexuality is very different from mine. That means I did not read this and think ‘aha, this is exactly how I feel as an ace!’ on the other hand it gave me a glimpse of a different way of experiencing asexuality. One obvious difference is that I’m aromantic and Alice is very biromantic. She has also previously had sex (though early in the novel she has decided to stop having sex) largely due to social pressure, whereas I have never had sex nor experienced direct pressure to have sex (I have experienced indirect pressure to have sex – such as pressure to go get a boyfriend – but I’ve never experienced a direct pressure to have sex, such as the way Margot pressured Alice).

Furthermore, though I experience aesthetic attraction, I don’t experience it nearly as strongly as Alice, or maybe it’s just not as personally important to me as it is the Alice.

Does the book make it clear that not all aces are like Alice i.e. that aromantic aces exist, that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction, some aces don’t like kissing, etc.?

The book vaguely mentions that not all aces are like Alice, and IIRC it briefly mentions that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction (or was that kissing), but nowhere does it state that aromantic aces exist.

That sucks, it’s bad ace rep if the book does not mention that some aces are not as into romance as Alice is.

You know what, I disagree with you. No, this novel does not acknowledge aromanticism, but I don’t think it’s on Alice and her story to represent all aces.

I’m not saying Alice needs to represent all aces, that’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s harmful if the book does not make it clear that not all aces want romance like Alice does. How hard would it be for the writer to add JUST A COUPLE SENTENCES which acknowledge that some aces are very different from Alice when it comes to romance and kissing and aesthetic attraction?

*sigh* I don’t think this book is obligated to do that. If this book existed in an environment where aromanticism were a widely known phenomenon, would you be complaining?

No, but that’s a hypothetical situation, this book might be the first time a reader is exposed to human asexuality, what if an aro ace who dislikes kissing who never had contact with the ace community read this book, maybe they would conclude they were not really ace because Alice is really into romance and kissing and they are not?

Again, I don’t think it’s fair to put that type of educational burden on a single book. The solution is to get more aromanticism in fiction, not to force every novel with an ace protagonist to do a full Asexuality 101. Especially since that gets tiresome for ace readers who have been through a lot of Asexuality 101.

I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement on this. Let’s move on.

I really liked the part where Alice was processing and analyzing and hair-splitting her feelings towards Takumi to figure out if maybe it was sexual attraction. That was a very ace experience. Here’s a little tidbit of that:

“So when I saw Tak- I mean, the person, I thought [it was sexual attraction] at first. They were just exceptionally cute, but then I got really hot and was having trouble thinking and there was action happening down there and I’m confused about stuff now.”

“Did you want to have sex with this person?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” She sighed. No point in holding back now. “I’m still figuring out how that’s supposed to feel.”

“Allow me to rephrase: Did you explicitly think of sexual activity in response to seeing this person?”

“No. I mean, it wasn’t like I wanted to take him to the supply closet for quickie or something.”

“What about now? Would you like to have sex with them?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” she said.

This story is definitely an example of the “When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace” trope, since much of the tension in Alice and Takumi’s relationship is driven by Alice’s hesitation to tell Takumi that she is ace. I this this bit sums up her attitude:

“Last we spoke,” he began, “you were experiencing some anxiety and uncertainty regarding your sexuality.”

“Yeah, that’s still happening. Sort of. But not really … It’s like, my problem is everyone else. I’m not ashamed or uncertain or whatever. I’m ace. It’s cool. I just don’t want to be anybody’s poster child. I’m not made for the front lines. I’ll wither and cry under pressure, so it’s better if I keep it to myself for now.”

There is so much ace content in this novel that I cannot address all of it in this review, but I think I have succeeded in giving a general sense of how asexuality is depicted in this story.

Was this written by an ace?

I don’t know.

Sara, do you like this novel?

I guess? I enjoyed reading it. I appreciate that it explores some ace experiences, and it was good for me in the sense that it is not the kind of thing I would choose to read often, so it breaks up my reading habits. However, if it were not for my interest is seeing how asexuality is presented in fiction, this would not have been my cup of tea.

LOL, Sara, we all know that your cup of tea is a really long sword opera written in Chinese, like that one you mentioned in last week’s post.

Hey, I don’t like all long sword operas written in Chinese, and there are other types of novels which are my cup of tea, such as Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. And that novel was not just about swords, in fact swords didn’t become a major element in the story until more than a thousand pages into the book.

*rolls eyes* Sure, Sara.

Nesting Plots in Way of Choices

I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias. You can get an overview of the 20 master plots here. To some extent, he was trying to find universal storytelling patterns which work across cultures, but he also had some cultural biases (which he sometimes acknowledges). The rationale he gave (indirectly – I’m reading between some of the lines) for some of his cultural biases is that the book is written for Anglophone writers of the late 20th century, and they break the parameters of late 20th century Anglophone culture at their peril. Fair enough. But I’m interested in analyzing story plots, not developing story plots, and some of the plots I want to consider aren’t from 20th century Anglophone cultures.

For example, 20th century English language novels tend to be less than 600 pages long, and 20th century English language movies tend to less than three hours long. Some of the guidelines in the book are based on these restrictions in length, in particular the guideline that a story stick to one dominant plot pattern because there is usually not enough space to support multiple plot patterns. He also recommends that the cast of major characters be kept very small for similar reasons. However, he also admits that 19th century Russian novels did not always follow these particular guidelines because they had the space to be more expansive.

While I was reading this book, I was also reading Way of Choices by Mao Ni (I read it in Chinese; it has also been translated into English). It isn’t just over 600 pages long, according to my e-reader, it’s over 5000 pages long. That includes the commentaries, and my e-reader tends to exaggerate page count, so let’s say it’s just 4000 pages long. Since that was the novel I was reading at the time I was reading 20 Master Plots, I naturally tried to see how it fit with Tobias’ plot guidelines.

You know how I suggested that different cultures tend to produce novels of different lengths? Chinese language literature tends to produce much longer novels than 19th century Russia (though there are also short Chinese novels), so Way of Choices is in no way an anomaly. This list at Wikipedia used to be a total joke because it excluded Chinese novels, now I see it has been updated to include a few Chinese novels, though there are still glaring omissions – how the heck is Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan not on there? It’s about 7000 pages long – I know, because I read the whole thing – it was published in a very traditional manner on physical paper, it was one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 1990s so it is in no way obscure…

*Ahem*.

Tobias claims that any plot can be summed up by a single core question. I can think of some counterexamples, but the basic question of Way of Choices is obvious: will Chen Changsheng (the protagonist) survive his youth? In the prologue, we learn that Chen Changsheng has a disease which will kill him before he reaches the age of 20 – unless something else kills him first. If that weren’t bad enough, his blood has such an irresistible aroma that most animals (including most humans) will try to eat him if they get a whiff, so he has to be very careful about shedding his own blood. Generally, Chen Changsheng is obsessed with finding at way to not die young.

Does the whole novel follow a single dominant plot pattern? In my opinion, no.

The first 60% of the novel does have a dominant plot pattern – what Tobias called the ‘quest’ plot. The object of Chen Changsheng’s quest is to find out how to change fate. At the beginning of the novel, he is fated to die young, and in order to not die young, he has to change his fate. Only three people in all of history have changed their fate, and his quest is to find out how they did it so he can do it too. This has great personal meaning to him, if he attains his object (the means to change his fate), it would dramatically change his life (he might not die young). And he picks up a lot of wisdom along the way, particularly concerning the value of life, how to cope with the prospect of death, and whether or not fate is a real thing.

Yet within that dominant pattern, there are numerous plot arcs, and they generally take other patterns. They are essentially smaller plots nested within the dominant plot arc. Tobias says that this can generally only be done in a minor way, and if a novel is only 300 pages long, he’s probably right, but Way of Choices ain’t that short.

For example, the Zhou’s Park arc follows the ‘Adventure’ master plot. Chen Changsheng doesn’t expect to find much to help him in his quest (changing fate to save his own life), but if he figures that if he is going to die young anyway, he would like to do some more traveling and see more places, and he might find some cool treasure in Zhou’s Park. That is why he chooses to go there. The Zhou’s Park arc is about exploring an interesting place and having interesting events happen (and many people/creatures/things trying to kill Chen Changsheng), and not much about character development. And just as Tobias suggests that ‘Adventure’ plots tend to have a romance subplot, Zhou’s Park is where Chen Changsheng has his first seriously romantic experiences.

Another plot arc is the Su Li arc, which follows the ‘Pursuit’ pattern. For a change, everyone is trying to kill Su Li, not (necessarily) Chen Changsheng. However, Chen Changsheng is with Su Li, and does not want to leave him, so they flee together from everyone who is trying to kill them. There is constant tension with regards to whether they are going to be discovered, caught, and killed by their (many) pursuers.

Of course, there are more plot arcs which follow other patterns described by Tobias, but I think these examples are enough to explain what I mean by ‘nesting’ plot arcs.

However, I said only the first 60% of the novel has the ‘Quest’ plot as a dominant narrative. What about the rest of the novel? The basic question (will Chen Changsheng survive) remains the same, but about 3/5 of the way through the novel there is a plot twist which twists the plot so dramatically that it completely changes the dominant plot pattern. After the super plot twist, the dominant pattern is what Tobias calls an ‘Underdog’ plot. Perhaps one could say that the whole plot has ‘Underdog’ as its dominant pattern, it’s just that Chen Changsheng and the reader did not know that for the first 60%.

This part of the novel also has plots nested within the overarching ‘Underdog’ plot. For example, Chen Changsheng’s close friend, Tang Thirty-Six, is practically being kept as a captive/prisoner, and his captor is waiting for favorable circumstances to outright kill him. Naturally, Chen Changsheng wants to set Tang Thirty-Six free. This plot arc follows what Tobias calls the ‘Rescue’ plot pattern.

And then there is the final plot arc which, frankly, was rushed. I think it would have been better if the novel had an extra thousand pages or two to fully flesh out the final arc, but perhaps Mao Ni was tired of writing this novel and wanted to wrap it up. It feels like an epilogue in the sense that it seems to be more about tying up dangling plot threads than letting them play out. It’s also the only plot arc in which the question ‘will Chen Changsheng survive’ is not an ever-present backdrop. That’s not to say that Chen Changsheng isn’t threatened with death in the final arc – he is very much is threatened with death – it’s just that not woven into the story the same way (it is hard to get specific without getting into spoilers). This final arc is most similar to what Tobias calls the ‘Discovery’ plot pattern, in that it is about Chen Changsheng finally learning the answers to various questions.

Based on all of the long novels I’ve read, it seems that, to form a plot for a very long story, nesting plots is not strictly necessary, but it tends to be a very common way to form plots which can run for thousands of pages (or many episodes of a TV show, or whatever the medium is). And I think this may be part of why I feel that novels which exceed 1000 pages are distinct from novels under 600 pages in the same way that novellas/novelets are distinct from novels. If a work of fiction is too short, using nesting plots is impractical, if a work of fiction is long enough, nesting plots is the most practical way to spin a plot.

There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

OTHELLO:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.