Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Rules of the Game" (1989)

Read story by Amy Tan online.

It has been a long time since I read Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, which I recall as mostly a single long piece—actually, I remembered it as a memoir. But the real distinction appears to be between novel and collection of stories, in which case I remember it as a novel. But this is in a story anthology and apparently taken as a stand-alone, so OK. It's about a girl who learns at a young age that she has a gift for chess, and how that complicates her relationship with her mother, and her understanding of life as the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants growing up in San Francisco. I'm not sure how I would take "Rules of the Game" without knowing about The Joy Luck Club, but it felt to me like a fragment from something larger. The bigger point is the girl's relationship with her mother, which is touched on here but more peripherally. The story is told first-person by the daughter as a grown woman, and it's particularly good on the reveries of going deeply into a game. When a person has a knack for something, often the most important things occurring in the head, or the brain, don't translate well verbally. There's a learning process happening, but it's very hard to describe, and almost has to be approached indirectly. Here that is evoked wonderfully in the names of chess strategies she learns from an older Chinese man: the Double Attack From East and West Shores ... Throwing Stones on the Drowning Man ... the Sudden Meeting of the Clan ... the Surprise From the Sleeping General, and more. Tan's language is always clear and propulsive, a pleasure to read. But I recall the relationship with the narrator's mother as infinitely more developed than what's here, and even in stunted form it's by far the most interesting element in this story. But the story also has many other good points. The way Tan renders the mother's dialect is wonderful, sharp and evocative. The narrator's Americanized voice makes a good contrast. There's nothing so new or innovative about the story it tells of the rifts between generations in a family of immigrants. But it's done so well I want more—not least, because I know there is more. My recommendation is that you just go read The Joy Luck Club.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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