The heartbroken seek out solace in Kevin Chong's Beauty Plus Pity
Beauty Plus Pity
By Kevin Chong. Arsenal Pulp, 256 pp, softcover
Kevin Chong’s stories focus on the particular experience of being young, restless, and unpretentiously cool. Hilarious and offbeat, his sympathetic characters search for anchors in the form of love, kinship, and dreams, with the idling hope of stilling their own bewilderment.
Beauty Plus Pity, his latest novel, follows 20-something Malcolm Kwan for a year as he drifts through Vancouver after a double dose of heartbreak. The aspiring model had anticipated his father’s death from cancer, but is blind-sided by his fiancée’s betrayal; hadn’t they been content?
At this particularly vulnerable time, Hadley Wallace, the half-sister he never knew he had, introduces herself, and their burgeoning relationship becomes the silver lining to this otherwise muddling period. Through the teenage Hadley, Malcolm revisits his ties to their film-director father, and appreciates these memories while transitioning into the role of older brother and confidant.
In his 2001 novel Baroque-a-Nova and his 2005 memoir Neil Young Nation, Chong, who lives in Vancouver, reflected on family, friendship, pop culture, and loss, and recorded the extended twilight between adolescence and adulthood.
Here, these motifs form the base line for an entertaining yet melancholy story about alliances fed by a need for stability amid grief. Beauty and pity reside in these characters’ emotional interiors, in their desire and inadequacy to fully connect, and in the ephemeral way they create and occupy voids in each other’s lives.
“I was only beginning to realize how desperately I wanted someone around,” Malcolm observes. “For both of us, the only matter remaining was not appearing too grateful—not revealing how badly we both needed the same thing.”
Despite his mother’s opposition, Malcolm continues seeing his illegitimate half-sister, while building an unconventionally personal rapport with his agent and listlessly developing his career.
The book’s title echoes Vladimir Nabokov’s definition of art as “beauty plus pity”: “Where there is beauty there is pity,” the Russian author writes, “for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies.” Chong portrays the disparity between these individuals’ ambitions and achievements with remote empathy, and a winking awareness of the reader arrives in the author’s humorous observations and screen-worthy dialogue. Beneath Beauty Plus Pity’s deadpan surface, however, is a memorial to life’s transitory and cyclical nature, and to love both lost and found.