Study Guide

Patricia Chao

Patricia Chao Essay - Critical Essays

Chao, Patricia

Introduction

Patricia Chao Monkey King

Chao is an American novelist.

Chao's debut novel, Monkey King, has received widespread critical praise. Of Chinese American descent, Chao focuses strongly in her novel on the chasm between different generations of immigrant families and the conflicts inherent in the immigrant experience. Her protagonist, Sally Wang, is a twenty-eight-year-old, second-generation Chinese American. An intelligent and successful Manhattan art director, Sally finds herself suddenly unable to perform any of her normal activities, instead spending her time ritually cutting long "tiger stripes" into her arms with an X-acto knife. She leaves her husband and subsequently attempts suicide, which lands her in a Connecticut mental institution. There she meets Lillith, an anorexic who believes herself to be Joan of Arc, and Mel, a violent young man who nevertheless acts as Sally's protector. In family therapy with her mother and sister, Sally confronts the horrible truth from her childhood that continues to plague her: her now-deceased father's repeated molestation. The book's title comes from Sally's childhood attempts at dissociation from the terror and pain of abuse; during her father's nightly violations, the young Sally would think of him not as her father but as the Monkey King—an evil figure from Chinese folklore. Reactions of the three women characters to the abuse vary widely. Sally desperately wishes to express her pain openly, while her mother—who knew of the abuse—angrily refuses to discuss the issue because that would violate the traditional Chinese Confucian ban on speaking ill of the dead. Sally's sexually promiscuous sister Marty, meanwhile, finds herself contemptuous and jealous of their father's greater interest in Sally, however damaging and inappropriate it was. Finally, when she leaves the facility, Sally goes to stay with her mother's sister Mabel and her husband Richard in Florida. Less rigid and concerned with following customs than Sally's own parents, her aunt and uncle prove to have a soothing effect on her. Probing into her feelings of alienation and rootlessness and the constant conflict she experiences between her Chinese ancestry and her American reality, Sally eventually reaches a conclusion to accept and live with "everything, pleasure and pain." Critics praised Chao's ability to explore the topic of mental illness without falling into either self-pity or "psychobabble," as one reviewer wrote. A commentator for Kirkus Reviews found Monkey King "Moving, lively, relentless, and deeply sad: an uncommonly accomplished debut."

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Monkey King, in Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1996, p. 1618.

[In the following review, the critic praises Chao's ability in Monkey King to write a complex novel dealing with difficult themes in a seemingly effortless style.]

[Monkey King is a] skilled first novel that chronicles a young Chinese-American woman's breakdown and recovery, and her concurrent exploration of her family's murky emotional landscape.

When the story begins, 28-year-old Sally Wang is on 24-hour suicide watch at a mental institution that looks like the New England boarding school she once attended. With fellow patients like Lillith, who thinks that she's Joan of Arc, and 19-year-old Mel, who's flirty and prone to violence, Sally endures endless group therapy. Eventually, she begins to talk about her family. Originally from a small Chinese farming village, Sally's father had come to the US with dreams of being a physicist, but his sponsors died, and he ended up gloomy, frustrated, a failure. He also repeatedly raped Sally. Sally's tight-lipped mother didn't intervene and now, at family therapy, accuses Sally of having made up the incest thing. Sally's boy-crazy sister Marty also fails to support her. Sprung from the facility, Sally goes to St. Petersburg, Florida, for what turns out to be an experience in corrective parenting with her mother's less rigid sister Mabel and her husband Richard, who's respectful, generous, and amiable. Still feeling out of sorts, Sally sifts through memories of her unhappy marriage while clearing the yard of bruised grapefruits. She also begins an affair with a stranger that triggers, amidst much pleasure, the memories of the abuse, an advance over the all-encompassing numbness she's felt most of her life. Chao, meantime, never seems to be working hard to bring all this about: Her piercing eye for detail and her mastery of structure go almost unnoticed as Sally's adventures, ruminations, and memories layer one upon the next. But the novel's real strength is psychological portraiture. Every character (including the father) is multidimensional, carried along on deep currents of feeling of which they are often thoroughly (and believably) unaware.

Moving, lively, relentless, and deeply sad: an uncommonly accomplished debut.

Deborah Kirk (review date 27 February 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Monkey King, in Salon Magazine, February 27, 1997.

[In the following review, Kirk admires Chao's focus in Monkey King on the gulf between generations of immigrants to America but finds the protagonist's final resolution "almost unbearably naive."]

Midway through this accomplished first novel [Monkey King], we learn that there's an old Chinese folk tale about an evil god called the Monkey King. He has a special pole—the primary instrument of his mischief-making—that he can "make small to carry, big to hit people with." As it happens. "Monkey King" is also the name assumed by the narrator's father in the middle of the night, when he comes to his daughter's bed to force himself on her. This is where you start thinking: Please, not another Dad's-magic-pole story. But Chao succeeds with a difficult subject; she has taken a topic that nowadays veers dangerously close to cliché and written a well-crafted and engaging story.

Monkey King begins when Sally Wang, the deeply troubled 27-ycar-old narrator, is on her way to a psychiatric hospital following a botched suicide attempt. In family therapy, she's eager to discuss her history of sexual abuse, to exorcise her monstrous memories. Her mother, however (who knew of the late-night violations), dismisses Sally's accusations as lies. Herein lies the book's essential disjunction: Sally is...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Philip Gambone (review date 16 March 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Monkey King, in The New York Times, March 16, 1997, p. 21.

[In the following review, Gambone calls Monkey King "a considerable achievement," despite finding the novel's ending "reductive."]

At 28, Sally Wang would seem to have many advantages, including a fine education and a promising career as an art director in New York. But "all this American stuff" cannot dispel the ghost that haunts her—that of her father, now dead, who sexually molested her as a child. After an attempted suicide, Sally embarks on the painful process of exorcising this demon and coming to terms with the lies and blind spots in herself and her family—a family in which filial respect, perfectionism and the public pretense that, as she puts it, "everything's hunky-dory" obscure hard realities. This is a familiar theme in contemporary Chinese-American literature, but Patricia Chao, who makes her debut with this novel, explores it with freshness and aplomb. In short, delicately sketched scenes, she convincingly portrays Sally's awakening to the fact that her life has been an attempt "to numb the monster inside me." The second half of the novel turns to Sally's struggle to understand her parents, giving them a surprisingly empathetic hearing. The Wangs' sense of displacement, the "continuing seasickness of immigrants." is a major theme. Although in this section the exposition occasionally drags, and the conclusion feels reductive, Monkey King is still a considerable achievement, the work of a writer worthy of serious attention.

Teresa Wiltz (review date 23 March 1997)

SOURCE: "A Woman's Fight to Overcome Devastating Childhood Memories," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 23, 1997, Sec. 14.

[In the following review, Wiltz offers praise for Chao's deft handling of the destructive power of memory in Monkey King.]

Memory is a tricky thing; it won't be denied. Squash it down, stuff the pain into some dark place and it will emerge like a boil, turgid and tender, demanding in a loud voice to be attended to. Now.

When this happens, life can never be the same again. Old thoughts, beliefs, hopes and wishes fly every which way until they land in some crazy reconfiguration. Life can never be the same again—if you can even survive the onslaught of memory with mind, body and soul intact.

Such is the premise of Patricia Chao's lyrically written debut novel, Monkey King, which is told from the first-person perspective of a 27-ycar-Chinese-Amcrican woman fighting to regain her sanity after a devastating childhood.

Sally Wang is the embodiment of the yuppie dream: great job, great husband, great apartment filled with antiques. An oasis of seeming calm, Sally is living the glamorous life in New York City. As she puts it: "I am not the kind of person anyone ever expected to go crazy. That's more my sister's department. The only extreme thing I'd ever done in my life was to drop out of college to get married. I thought I'd never have to make a big decision again, except maybe whether or not to have children."

Except that Sally decides to leave the great husband and the great job and hide out in an East Village apartment that contains nothing more than her clothes, a mattress, "one mug, one glass, one plate, one set of cutlery, a single pair of chopsticks" and $80 worth of paint she has shoplifted from an art-supplies store...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Christopher Farley (review date 5 May 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Monkey King, in Time, Vol. 149, No. 18, May 5, 1997, p. 101.

[In the following review, Farley praises Chao's reliance on details to build a powerful and meaningful story in Monkey King.]

Chao's intermittently witty and highly readable Monkey King … deals with menial illness, mysticism and sexual abuse. The narrator, 28-year-old Sally Wang, is a Chinese-American woman who has just suffered a mental breakdown. The book's power comes not from some wild psychological portrait of a mind in turmoil but from its careful detailing of Sally's life at the mental institution in which she attempts a recovery. Sally's family history is also...

(The entire section is 215 words.)