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Arts & Culture

‘The Five Acts of Diego Leon’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Soulfully Sell Out

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The Five Acts of Diego Leon
by Alex  Espinoza | Random House | $26 | 320 pp
The Fives Acts of Diego Leon, the sophomore effort by the Tijuana-born ex-egg candler who charmed Chicano lit cheerleaders with Still Water Saints—a candle shop curandera-slick cauldron of sublime coincidence and genuine south-of–the-border fact—offers to his growing audience a very new Latino literary situation. Five Acts has every right to behave like some Gabriel García Márquez knock-off, with its reptilian hallucinations, anti-church warriors and poor-house seductions, but Espinoza keeps his prose minimal, even experimentally so. The novel reads like some pre-Gordon Lish-edited Raymond Carver, and so bare-bones matter-of-fact that the wan cadence that harmonizes around a maximalist plot which takes its hero from war-torn Mexico to the heyday of Hollywood must be intentional, if not a joke. A book that drags its orphaned hero into the class struggles between Tinseltown juice and old world justice, and portrays aspiring actors bending their sexual favors in a land of spiritual poverty and Babylonian bribes is exactly the kind of story that calls for obligatory fabulism one might encounter in, say, Like Water For Chocolate or in any Isabel Allende potboiler. But what the patient reader gets instead of Magic Realist clichés posing as felt history is prose that sticks to structure lines involving revolution, ditched romance and homosexual repression awash in machismo, as stubbornly as skin might stick to fate, and tradition to its cultural traitors. 

Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan | Doubleday | $25.95 | 416 pp
Though the tried and true (and tired) story of fabulously wealthy young people meeting up and meting out manners of forced alliance typically hearkens to Jane Austen or those poor souls Anthony Trollope used to tramp over, Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians has realized the tonal spirit of the great satirist Saki, whose spoiled characters moved from garden parties to reincarnated cats. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan, a former fashion assistant for Interview magazine, invites readers to attend an opulent Singapore wedding ceremony through the eyes of the lovely and loaded couple Nick and Rachel, and gives readers a gossipy insider’s guide to turf wars of old (and when I say old I mean dynastic) money and the nouveau riche niceties of ABCs (American Born Chinese). The author’s hilarious insistence on name brands such as Gucci and Pierre Hardy, which might come off as crass currents in the flow of an otherwise perfect satirical swoon of narration, seems somehow honorable and necessary to the spirit of this alienating/alluring comedy. Lucre has always been filthy, the genius of Kwan is that, cut off from the guilt of greed, it can also just be a gas.

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