Saturday, January 12, 2013

Chasing Dragons

           So the rundown is as follows: There is a good book here, but it's in desperate need of an editor to bring it out of its shell. While the characters are colorful, they tend to be dependent on the two somewhat-weaker protagonists, and overall the feeling is that Douglas Jaffe tells us more than shows us about these people. Ultimately, the book gets caught up in its own setting and mythology, and while that would be a strength for a nonfiction book, it only detracts from the story here. Chasing Dragons does come together into a very good ending, but by that point, the journey causes it to lose its impact. The book is not poorly-written, it could just benefit from a stronger editorial control, and perhaps a rewrite of the initial few chapters. While I cannot recommend Chasing Dragons to all but the most persistent, I am impressed with Mr. Jaffe as an author and hope to see more from him.

"It sounds cool, but a bit amorphous at times. Might be a challenge trying to keep a cohesive theme."
- Sebastian

             I'm secretly a fan of the fantasy romance. When done well, anyway. You won't find me reading a lot of books about vampires getting laid, or the complexities of shapeshifter-telepath romance, but when a book comes along that's sweet, a little sad, and very engaging, I'm a sucker for them. So when the opportunity came along to review Chasing Dragons, a work by Douglas A. Jaffe, an author that I hadn't heard much about, I jumped at it. Between the connections to Asian mythology and the idea that immortal creatures influence a modern-day relationship, as well as the fact that the story sounded really sweet, I picked it up the moment I got a copy and started reading immediately.

           And,'s an interesting book, I'll give it that. But there are issues. And while I tried to like the book, I kept thinking that maybe with a good look by an editor, this could be one to knock it out of the park. Douglas A. Jaffe clearly knows what he's doing as a writer, but it's unpolished. When the feeling is there, it's slightly buried by the way the book is written. But despite the unpolished quality, it's easy to see that there is a good book in there, and with a little help, Jaffe should be able to bring it out.

           Chasing Dragons is the story of Sebastian, the owner of a secondhand bookstore in Hong Kong. He lives a pretty basic life, doesn't want for anything, and is surrounded by friends. He also has a sideline in playing unlicensed therapist/counselor to a cast of colorful eccentrics who come into the store for advice. His life is for the most part quiet though lacking in romance until the day the beautiful and enigmatic Chloe enters his shop. Right around the same time, Sebastian's best friend Jim comes into the country to do a documentary on dragons and mythology and wants Sebastian to help out with it.

And then things get weird.

            Sebastian starts having odd dreams and hallucinations-- dreams and hallucinations that may be linked to both the documentary and indeed his relationship with Chloe. The same dreams, hallucinations, and waking visions may have something to do with an ancient Chinese story about two dragons and their love for one another. As Sebastian gets pulled deeper into the story, it may be possible that he isn't who he thinks he is...and perhaps he and his girlfriend may have something going on that transcends humanity itself. And more frightening yet, Sebastian may have to choose between his humanity, and his love.

           I suppose the first hurdle to address would be the way Jaffe seems to show more than tell. While writing isn't a visual medium, it is always better to show the reader someone's personality traits rather than telling them about them. The first glimpses of Sebastian we get don't really tell us anything, and most of the knowledge we get about his character is in dialogue with other people and (disconcertingly) in scenes where other characters talk about Sebastian. It's the same with Chloe...she's sort of an enigma, because while we hear a lot about her, we never get to see much of her. She comes and goes, there in phone conversations and her presence in several scenes, but never seems to be more than a secondary character. If there were more investigation to who she was, or what went on around her, this would be all right. Instead, the love interest who should be by all rights a main character or the center of the piece is obscured. 

          This obscurity does not, however, extend to the other characters. Jim and Lydia, the filmmakers, are very well fleshed-out, to the point of being able to hear them. Though we know very little, a lot of what goes on with them is shown, and some of it implied. Jaffe clearly has some command over character. The various shopgoers, documentary subjects, and friends that exist in the book are colorful, eccentric, and it is much easier to figure out who they are. Especially the documentary subjects and the various people who come to Sebastian for counseling. In fact, I can see the book easily taking a sort of Bridge of Birds or Story of the Stone approach: No, the characters most involved in the story don't wind up with anyone, but they help Sebastian and Chloe figure things out and bring balance to the world. 

          Second, the book tends to go off on a lot of tangents. Now, going off on tangents in and of itself is just fine. This blog does it for the first two paragraphs of any article (and the travel articles sometimes do it for whole sections). But there is a time and a place for tangents, and while the mythology and various goings-on of Hong Kong make for an interesting read, they only serve to disrupt the flow of the story. It feels like Jaffe is more in love with his setting than his characters, sometimes describing an espresso machine in loving detail, but not putting the same detail into the characters making espresso. He'll spend a paragraph describing the kind of dim sum and dumplings the characters eat, and even expand upon how each person eats and what it says about them, but won't spend the same time on the basic interactions the people eating the dumplings have. He also doesn't let the description serve on its own, but instead explains what it means when a certain character eats his bun a particular way.

           While the tangents would serve a nonfiction book very well, as would the level of detail and care, they don't have as good a place in a fiction book. I'm reminded of something Kris Saknussemm once said when he was interviewed about Zanesville: He said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that he had so much material that he wanted to use, and he just eventually had to put some of it aside and save it. In particular, he had an entire bit on the life-cycle of flies he took out, because it didn't fit and he could always use it at another point. I find myself saying something similar about the work of Douglas A. Jaffe. It feels like, while showing off his city, he could have put some of this stuff into other areas or maybe written a book about what it's like to experience Hong Kong. Hell, he could have even made the city into a character and had the plot be incidental. I'm not quite sure how (I admit that's one of the things I'm not good at), but it's been done before, and a book more about Hong Kong than about goings-on in Hong Kong with Jaffe's particular style would be one I'd be interested to read. Perhaps a collection of interlocking short stories.

         Which brings me to something I really like about the book. Jaffe handles the two intertwining narratives in Chasing Dragons well, with flashbacks to the story of the two dragons Zhao Chen and Chi Wen slowly interleaving into modern day. Some flashbacks are even followed by Sebastian waking up from a dream, further cementing his connection and the connection between the two storylines as they begin to merge. When the narrative does run as a cohesive whole, it works wonderfully, and I actually felt like I was "with it". There was one particular sequence near the end that tied together a plot point about a jade carving of a dragon in a jungle that I especially thought was handled well and aided the theme. Watching the culmination of the storylines was one of my favorite parts of the book.

 However, this did outline one final problem with the book: Pacing.

            I love the ending to this book. It's sweet, it's sad, and the epilogue adds a nice coda to it that while downbeat keeps the tone of the book and as a conclusion, follows the premise introduced. However, I would have liked more time to explore that premise. It's all sort of tied up in the last few chapters after going along at a fairly lesiurely pace, and while this allows there to be time to explore the premise and themes the book flirted with, and a culmination of those themes, it feels too rushed, too short. In particular, near the end there is an interesting exploration of identity and personality that, had it been drawn out more, would have worked a lot better than the brief amount it did. When the ending comes, it just feels rushed, like it should have been observed and not played out by the narrator. The emotion is there, and it's fantastic emotion, but I feel like it should have come earlier, that the climax should have been more of a culmination. 

          So in the end, I find myself in the position of being able to recommend an author, but not his current book. Douglas A. Jaffe has a lot of talent and a lot of potential. I'm interested to see what he does next. The moments when Chasing Dragons shines, it really shines. I can see the machinery and how it works, how it should work. But I can't help but think that Jaffe needs a better editor to fix the issues with structure and character. And in the end, much though I like the author and think he has genuine moments of amazing writing, a book needs to stand as a book. And sadly this one doesn't do that for me.

Ah, hell, let's just make it Strange Romance month:
- Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
- White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
And more to come!


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