Although PANGS OF LOVE is the title of this collection and one of the short stories contained within, it could easily be used for every tale in this book. The stories all concern love and nearly every character experiences it as a pang. It is the type of love experienced by people alienated by culture, language, and generation.
In the title story, a Chinese woman who has lived in New York for forty years communicates to her son in Chinese, asking him to be what he cannot: her idea of a traditional Chinese male married to a traditional Chinese woman. Her isolation from her children is shown to be even greater during a visit to her other son: she sits with him and his male friends uncomprehendingly on the periphery of his openly gay life.
Another story, “Displacement,” hints at the desperate acceptance and repressed anger of a middle-aged Chinese couple caring for an abusive, senile woman. Again isolation, alienation, and regret separate them from themselves, each other, and the world. In other stories in this collection political activism, issues of identity arising from the Asian-American experience, and social reform waft through, although the characters chat about trivia and patter on about brand-name consumer products.
The former topics are both compelling and dramatic, yet are never done justice by Louie. He relies exclusively on the characters to examine the issues. Unfortunately, they are as alienated and uncommunicative with the reader as they are with themselves and each other. Louie compounds the problem by writing in a flat unembellished style that neither energizes the material nor engages the reader.
Given the themes Louie introduces, it’s a shame that the reader is left with dialogue about disposable diapers and characters as ciphers.