ANGELINE KEK WRITES — Cemented as one of the more influential novels in literary culture, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been, if anything, overly explored by critics and readers worldwide. Nghi Vo boldly disagrees — in fact, this exclusive social circle, novelist Nghi Vo insists, is missing someone — it is missing a reinvented Jordan Baker, and The Chosen and the Beautiful lives up to its name, whether entrancing plotlines, ethereal language, thoughtful themes, to characters so masterfully constructed that they become part of you. Sultry, sharp, and scrumptious — Nghi Vo takes the reader on a piquant ironic journey that is impossible to resist.
The plot of the novel: As a child living in wartime Tonkin (or Vietnam), Jordan was “saved” and brought to Louisville, Kentucky by Eliza Baker, a missionary and daughter of the opulent Baker family. Thrusted into the parameters of a foreign land and upper-class society, Jordan was quickly made aware of how her Vietnamese appearance sets her apart from everyone else. Adults treated her inferiorly, likening her to the maids and hid her in her bedroom during house parties. Jordan from Tonkin was destined to live a lonely life, until a young Daisy Buchanan snuck into her room during an evening of a party.
Daisy was everything Jordan was not: white, adored, lusciously wrapped in charm and gold. Curiously, she was also the first person in Jordan’s new life who made her feel seen: “Mother said that you were no different from the ones who wash out clothes, but you are different, aren’t you?
It is clear from their first encounter that Jordan, whatever her appearance, was no ordinary girl on any level. Determined to hold Daisy’s attention with the promise of “exotic” stories of a foreign land, Jordan spun whimsical tales of things unheard of before, finally exhibiting the magical practice of “paper cutting,” as she describes a dancing lion made from paper that was brought to life. Daisy nudged Jordan to show her, and while Jordan was bracing for a look of disappointment on Daisy’s face, a twisting, roaring lion materialized as the scissors glided on red cardstock paper.
Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is not merely a reimagination of The Great Gatsby — it takes you into scenes of nefarious bargains in the darkness. While most characters such as Daisy and Gatsby are animated closely to Fitzgerald’s descriptions and the turn of events unfolds in analogous ways, the implication is that there are occult secrets lurking in the corner – that something indeed has been missing. The reader is let in on the imps, the ghosts, the demoniac drinks, sex parties of the elite, and the deals with the devil: it is an open secret that Jay Gatsby is the closest thing. Gatsby “was dripping with money and magic,” writes Nghi Vo, and so were his lavish parties from heaven and hell. Overflowing with rare spirits, endless otherworldly entertainment, warm dazzling light, and everyone who was anyone in New York: “… it felt as if every wish you had while within [Gatsby’s] domain might be granted.”
Of course, all that is gold is for Daisy, but it is at one of these hell-raising festivities that Jordan came face to face with a dragon soaring above the enchanted partygoers. As it plunged down on her, something told Jordan to stand her ground and raise her hand to the sky. Rip. The dragon tears apart, reducing to fluttering pieces of paper. “Rotten brat, that took two hours to make.” The voice came from a face that looked like her. Khai is a Vietnamese paper cutter, part of a traveling performance troupe. He asks her if she’s a daughter of a Vietnamese working class family. She looks at him with “attraction and repulsion”— how dare he assume that she was also an outsider at this beau monde party. Truth is, Jordan knows that despite her elegance, her charm, her edge, and her riches, she will never escape being an outsider — especially amid talks of the “Manchester Act,” a fictional proposal to deport Asians from the United States. As the summer unfolds amid alarming talk of the “Manchester Act”, Jordan is invited to a gathering in Chinatown by Khai. “[Chinatown] was a place that made me prickle uneasily … In truth, I felt less special in Chinatown, and that made me dislike it.” This gathering marks a strange first in Jordan’s life: her Asian appearance did not separate her from others at the table. Whether she fully fits in is another story.
Never escaping the fate of the original tragic romance, Daisy plans to flee with Tom to Spain under the guise of a holiday after Gatsby goes down for the deadly car accident. Jordan is also planning a trip, only to avoid racial reckoning: “[The Manchester Act] wasn’t even mentioned in the smart set that [Jordan] ran with normally. Sitting [with Khai], however, it felt more real than it ever had.” It was clear that while this was a matter of life and death for people like Jordan, her closest confidants could not care less, evident in the numerous times that she had been called “China Doll.” This was the biggest chasm between Jordan and Daisy, and it remains evident from beginning to end — not exactly this side of paradise.
Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are unhesitatingly honest.