Patricia Chao Critical Essays

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."