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“Things to Make and Break”, by May-Lan Tan

May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and BreakWith the story collection Things to Make and Break (CB Editions, February 2014), May-Lan Tan is in the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award 2014. Her collection of eleven short stories, chosen for the award by the «Guardian» readers, has been described by enthusiast reviewers as a brilliant debut.

On her website can be find some more information about the prize finalist. Born in Hong Kong of Dutch speaking Indonesian parents, May-Lan Tan has lived in China and Northern California, and later studied art in London, where she is currently based. She has done lots of disparate jobs, which she lists in her website (psychiatrist audiotypist and personal chef among the others), but is now working as a copywriter as well as writing fiction. After Things to Make and Break and a chapbook (that is, a mini-book) titled Girly, a novel and a story cycle are to follow.

All Tan’s travelling, working in different jobs, and being across cultures reflects in her stories, too. Her characters sometimes speak more than one language, they are young but experienced. Often, they are outcasts: children of alcoholic fathers and suicide mothers, high school students on drugs, failed artists turned robbers, or stranded in unsatisfactory, dull jobs. There is an injured trapeze artist turned into a sidewalk mime, a motorcycle courier stalking her lover’s exes, a masochist girl in a crisis and an extremely articulate pole dancer who for obscure reasons submits to absurd working conditions. Some of the characters are glamorous, however, like the actress in a popular crime drama television series and her gorgeous, boyish-looking stunt double.

There is also a lot of sex, in each story, enjoyed more often than suffered, and accordingly described in detail and with great gusto. These sex scenes do not read as boring, meticulous reports. You really might just enjoy the clear, hard prose.

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May-Lan TanThe stories are often built on parallel characters with sort of parallel lives. Two young men share the same lover, two sisters are pregnant of two brothers, two children live in different parts of America but share the same beauty, the same name and the same bad luck with their parents. What is different is how each character deals with what occurs to them. Sometimes, reading, you feel a sense of impending catastrophe. You just know that something is about to be broken: children, hopes, expectations. Sometimes the catastrophe is too easy to predict, or is not a real catastrophe. Nevertheless, with some stories, a detail might come back to you after a while, and strike you as interesting and true. Like in the first story, Legendary, where the protagonist’s lover and his carousel of exes all appear inexpressive like automata, which a child can have a ride on just dropping a dollar into the coin slit.

When the protagonists are children, Tan’s stories are cruel and gripping. The children are of course beautiful and beautifully described: «They have bloody Popsicle mouths and uncombed filament hair», she writes. «They wrap scarred knees over monkey bars and dangle upside down, spilt hair ablaze in sunlight, the knowledge of pain stashed like candy in the cheek».

Tan has a sort of compressed and graphic way of writing, which is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of these stories. Her language somehow feels like that of Julia K., one of her characters, whose words, as soon as pronounced, seem to become flesh on her tongue, but who also «speaks like an X-Ray, stripping every word to bone». «Every sentence» is «a necklace», which she is «pulling out of her mouth, tangled in smoke».

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