Review: Beauty Plus Pity, by Kevin Chong

>>Published: September 2011

“In my head, I imagined what my ideal dad would be like.”

“Really?” I asked. “So did I.”

Her eyes flared open. “Really? What was your ideal father like?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s probably different from what you’d imagine out of thin air.”

“Well, I always thought he’d be someone who could fix things. Stuff would fall apart in our house and my mom would tape it up. I used to hate it when she drove to school to pick me up in her car with the bumper held on with electrician’s tape. I didn’t necessarily think of him as being Asian, but I guess I always thought he’d look different from my mom, in a way that would make us look like a family. No one thinks my mom and I are related, which is sometimes a relief. Did you grow up feeling different?”

“Why? Because I’m Chinese?”

“No. I mean, yeah.”

***

Malcolm Kwan’s fiancée has abandoned him for another man, his father recently lost his battle with lung cancer, and he has a half-sister named Hadley that, until his father’s funeral, he had never before met. Wading through a mess of family and extra-familial repression, anxiety, cultural hyphenation, inexplicable forgiveness, abuse, and former lovers, Kevin Chong’s Beauty Plus Pity follows Malcolm as he struggles to make an impact on the Vancouver modelling scene, all while coming to terms with the death of his father and of what he knew—or thought he knew—about the man.

Malcolm’s journey is balanced by Hadley, his several-years-younger half-sister, and the unexpected connection they forge as they work through the memories and ideas of their father—who he was, how he cared for them, where he failed to do so. Neither Malcolm nor Hadley is complete; both have lived a life wishing for different circumstances, to have experienced more definitive cohesion growing up. Neither is broken, per se, by the actions and affair of their shared father, but both have spent far too much of their lives lamenting over what they felt they had missed.

The tone of Beauty Plus Pity is quiet, bordering on reserved. This is accentuated in part by the slightly non-linear approach to the releasing of certain plot and character information. Choosing to unravel the further details of the growing connection between Malcolm and Hadley through sometimes vague, half-explained conversations and things left unsaid offers an opportunity for surprise; when truly emotional beats do occur, they are wound rhythmically through the chapters, sifting back and forth conversationally between the past and the present—and in one startling instance, a sudden blink of insight into an upsetting future event.

This is Malcolm’s story, and Chong carries his introspective tone through to a very satisfying conclusion. Through his connection with Hadley, and given a chance to view his father from another’s perspective, Malcolm’s growth from a relatively soft-willed individual into a man capable of emotional confrontation is natural, not forced. And as such changes are sometimes capable of, the lives surrounding Malcolm are invariably affected as well. In some cases, a veil is lifted and an individual’s abrasive nature is seen through an unfiltered lens, as is the case with Malcolm’s mother; in others, Malcolm’s newfound confidence provides him with the impetus to enact change, to embrace and maybe even correct mistakes of his past—to be the man he wishes he had been all along.

Beauty Plus Pity is emotionally deceptive—Chong’s nuanced structure keeps emotions under tight control, to be revealed at the author’s discretion and not a moment sooner. This level of authorial control is especially poignant when considered alongside the Vladimir Nabokov epigraph. Chong knows he must kill his beauty to take Malcolm to the next stage of his life, to give him something to feel, something to latch onto that is concrete and tangible, beyond his tepid ambitions and failed relationships—to show him that art is a social production, and is guided by many. When pain and strife are ignored, art—true beauty—ceases to exist.

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