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Forced peace

The Fifth Book of Peace Maxine Hong Kingston Alfred A. Knopf: 406 pp., $26

October 19, 2003|Michael Frank | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"The Fifth Book of Peace," Maxine Hong Kingston's first new book in more than a decade, is a hybrid of memoir, fiction and (the last term comes less fluidly) writing-group-verging-on-group-therapy reportage. The hybridized approach -- fact and fantasy boldly and often imaginatively commingled -- was successful in "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," vivid memoirs of Kingston's heritage that embrace the experienced, the inherited and the conjectural, and in her novel "Tripmaster Monkey," which was preceded by a disclaimer ("This fiction is set in the 1960s, a time when some events appeared to occur months or even years anachronistically"). But in this new book, for reasons that take time to unfold, the approach leads Kingston severely astray.

It's a particular disappointment because "The Fifth Book of Peace" begins so powerfully that the reader at first speeds through it in almost a single suspenseful breath. "Fire" is the name Kingston gives this section, and it is a sharp, aching account of just that, specifically the 1991 Oakland fire that she first saw just as she was returning from her father's funeral.

Kingston takes us through her once peaceful home landscape, now brutally transformed into a place of smoke and flame and fury, where a ginkgo tree "fountain[ed] up and up," BART girders smoked with heat and "A red-orange diamond enhoused [a neighbor's] house, the crystal within a crystal. So -- a house can burn all at once," we learn with Kingston, and "not be eaten away corner by corner."

This is an aching journey, full of memorable images and heightened perception, a journey for a highly relatable human quest: for one's endangered home and possessions, for -- in Kingston's case also -- the only copy of a manuscript in progress, a work of fiction called "The Fourth Book of Peace." All burned, all destroyed. All, in time, setting her on new and other quests that shape the remaining sections of the book.

"Fire" captivates, first, because of the splashy urgency of its writing but also because Kingston dovetails into it the kind of knowing, ambivalent asides about her family that distinguished her two memoirs. She ponders the link between her father's funeral fire and this fire. The funerary offerings seem to have been insufficient. The man is angry: He "wants more -- my book, all my books, my house, and neighborhood," just as, when he was alive and she first began to publish, he told her, "I have always wanted the life you have." In China he had been a poet, he had written six books of verse (also lost), but in America he "couldn't hear the voices so well." They were loving father and daughter; they were rivals; they were never one thin thing: Kingston the subtle memoirist gives people botched, people blotched, people in the round.

As with her father, her mother. For the funeral, Kingston's mother had sent the women in the family out to buy something beautiful and red because "[a]t a death, you don't want to live anymore; you want to follow the dead, loved person. Finding and buying a red object, you leave the black and white of the grave." But like Kingston's father, her mother is a mixture of impulses: She is oversized, she leaves "me no room to say how I felt" about this enormous loss. She "has called herself an old dying woman my whole life" and yet "I cannot bear for her to die. Mothers ought to be immortal." This all too human paradox is braided into the searing word pictures of the smoldering house and, later, its warm ashes, which she combs for remnants of her manuscript and other possessions. The ashes of a house, the ashes of her father's life: The story of one enlarges that of the other.

Out of the ashes, inevitably, rises the phoenix; out of Kingston's burned "Fourth Book of Peace" rises this idea for the new one. She will write it "with others, in community." And in this book she will write -- coax and will -- peace into being. How can you argue with writing, coaxing, willing peace into being? You cannot. These are worthy, commendable intentions, but worthy, commendable intentions can make for surprisingly irritating, earnest and stagnant writing.

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