Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of a Christ. A word, placed on her tongue, became flesh. One night it was almost morning, I could almost see her, every sentence a necklace she was pulling out of her mouth, tangled in smoke.
The life you decide to live, the moment you choose to make and break or mould anew, the connection, the relation, the self that disappears or materialises from the decision made in the present. In these eleven unique short stories, May-Lan Tan traces the contours of lost, outcast, lonely, rebellious, transforming and confused individuals in moments of being, their essences written as an exquisite cacophony of voices that capture snap shots of lives being lived. Yet, these traces are not always positive, fully outlined or even concluded as Tan unearths the scars, the abject, the breaks, and ragged edges of the moments these lives have fragmented – the squashed potentials, the missed chances to grab and embrace certain relations and connections. The characters continuously wrestle with what could have been, should have been and what is.
What are the “things” proclaimed in the title to make and break – the self, others, memories, the sexual; the body? We are met with a collage of characters in metamorphosis. Through poignant, banal, sexual, terrifying, inarticulate experiences they mould themselves into new skins, surrogate skins and the skins of others they wish they could wear, if only for a moment. Sometimes the characters simply shed their old skins, in occasionally violent or risky ways, in the hope for something changed, something more like their interior selves underneath, or, in the story of the parallel and juxtaposing lives of two Laurens, who share a name and similar tragedies, for a freedom from those ruling their skin. It is intriguing the way Tan sets up dualistic characters, the Laurens, the Twins and the actress and her stunt double, toying with subjectivity and what makes a person an individual – the choices they make, the lot they’ve been given, the experiences they’ve had and the people they’ve encountered.
But no matter what, each character seems to hold the tension of always fighting with who they are and what they seem to be, a tension that I’m sure will resonate with many. One character bravely turns the choice that haunts her into a positive, “I think I’m lucky. Most people never know exactly what they’ve missed”, instead, she’ll never be able to un-know, to forget. Whilst another character boldly states, “I want to be the breaks” when in reality she is:
the coyness, the wheedle, faked passion, icicle tears, small betrayals, the accommodating orifices, the warm welcome and the long way back. I’m the pout, the prettiness, and dreams of the real thing. I am hard knocks and lost loves. I’m just like a real person – in a movie. I’m how much it hurts and how much that’s part of it.
Throughout each story is the constant tug and pull of subjectivity, blurring characters into what an individual is, ought to be, is expected to be, fails to be and never can be. Tan plays with notions of self, both artificially constructed and individually worn, culminating in a refreshing piece of literature that is not afraid to be real, flawed and full of unknown endings and possibilities. Rather than tightly wrapping up all the questions and outcomes of each character, Tan skilfully shows that no-one is above the human condition of constantly living as a question mark.
Tan sculpts language into different forms and styles, with lyrical and viscerally raw, cut-throat meaning crafted through intertextuality, layered so finely with the episteme of theory (aptly highlighted through a few of her titles and expressions), feminism, notions of identity, observations, desires and decisions.
Kissing Julia was like kissing language. Her tongue was a flame, licking phoneme and diphthong. She swallowed me like a sword […] Her body a city: I carved a key out of soap, found the trapdoors and learned the secret knocks. I drew a map and held it inside me, the dark, oily street running through me like veins. I chalked hopscotch grids on pavements and wrote on walls.
Her characters become the embodiment of all these experiences that build up their strength, whilst equally creating fragile breaking points, as fragile as the candy glass that pretends to be real glass in the seventh story.
Words become like flesh, carved out, so richly shaping essences of living, of being, that they leave the taste of possible lives lingering on your tongue long after you finish turning these pages. Reflections turn inward, apt parallels are made as you’re reminded of all the “could-have-beens” that have faded from your own life and how just maybe, life could be lived differently, if you gave moments, “things,” their potential to make and break.
There is so much that could be said about this collection of stories, spanning temporalities, territories, spaces and subjectivities, but truly it is best to read them for yourselves and find the meanings that sink their teeth into you and hold on long after turning the last page.
About the publisher:
CB editions publishes works that “might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers” – short fiction, poetry, translations and other works of notable worth that have a unique and fresh perspective. CBe titles have won a fiction prize, a translation prize and three poetry prizes and have been shortlisted for other awards. 2014 was one of CBe’s highest-profile years in which many of their authors were receiving notoriety and consideration for awards, and during this time May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.