The Eastern & Western Self, as Portrayed in “Total” and “Self-Portrait With Ghost” – Chicago Review of Books


In Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell—the story of Billi, a young Chinese-American woman who returns to China after several years to spend time with her dying grandmother, who remains ignorant of her own condition—there is a scene between Billi and her uncle in which he explains the difference in their perspectives. Billi believes the family’s decision to keep the truth of grandmother Nai-Nai’s terminal diagnosis to themselves—requesting that her doctor assure her that she is in good health—is morally wrong. To this, her uncle says that Westerners believe “one’s life belongs to oneself.” However, “in the East, a person’s life is part of a whole” which is why it is up to Nai-Nai’s loved ones to “carry this emotional burden for her.” Two short story collections, Rebecca Miller’s Total and Meng Jin’s Self-Portrait with Ghost, together invite readers to contemplate Billi’s uncle’s words anew in relation to how we perceive the self, in literature and in life.

In addition to many lovely turns of phrase, Total introduces readers to characters they will instantly recognize and likely feel some form of kinship with. The first story, “Mrs. Covet,” is of a harried woman, pregnant with her third child, whose mother-in-law gifts her a housekeeper. I immediately empathized with her gradual feeling of isolation as the housekeeper she was once grateful for begins to usurp the mother’s connection to her own children. I also experienced a sharp pang of recognition at the almost stream-of-consciousness spill of memories in “Vapors,” in which a run-in with an abusive ex on the street triggers a mental avalanche of past lovers, alongside comparisons between who the protagonist once was and who she has become. 

The title story is the collection’s only foray into speculative fiction, and is set in a future where a technological breakthrough in communication leads to children who are born into fragile bodies that typically live only until age eight or nine. “Total” is narrated by the daughter of one of the scientists responsible for bringing this technology, and subsequently “Total Syndrome,” into being. The narrator is a regular teenager, but her younger sister, Eve, is “a Total” and lives apart from the family in a special facility for others like her. The story follows the narrator as she kidnaps her sister in hopes of building a life with her elsewhere. As the two travel with the narrator’s best friend on a tour bus with a band, the narrator transitions further into adulthood through sexual experiences and the responsibilities inherent to caring for her terminally ill sister.

Each story in Total is driven forward by an inciting incident. A writer meets someone in a pub while lamenting a lack of inspiration. A wife finds a troubling confession hidden in a drawer of her new house. A woman chooses a work trip over her anniversary in order to keep her job. A lot happens in these stories, but upon reaching their endings, it’s as if the preceding events were only a dream. Each protagonist settles comfortably on a definitive takeaway from the events of their respective tales, confident that they have come away with exactly what they need to conquer the next phase of their lives. Though Miller’s protagonists interact with others, these secondary characters exist chiefly to be judged or reacted to, with the protagonist always returning to themselves as central, a self that is fundamentally separate from others. It is always their own needs, disappointments, failings, and desires being contemplated; other people are merely a means to an end, with inner worlds that are none of the main character’s concern. 

When, in the story “She Came to Me,”  Ciaran sleeps with the woman he met at the pub and she instantly tries to attach herself to him, he flees home, thinking only of what he will lose if his wife finds out. Similarly, in “I Want You to Know,” when Joad believes she has stumbled onto a murderous confession, it is her own shock and curiosity that send her to a neighbor for more information, not an empathetic connection with the confession’s author. This is not unique to Miller’s collection—Western literature teems with Individuals, characters whose thoughts begin and end with the self. We generally read to follow one character in particular (sometimes more than one) on a journey. It is not that other characters don’t impact them, but that the other is never as important as the self.

The title Self-Portrait with Ghost reveals everything one need know about the stories within. So, too, does the dedication: for my mother, and the other women who made me. Each story follows a woman (or in the case of the final tale, three) who exclusively considers her own self-hood in relation to others who hold significant space in her life and memories. Jin allows her protagonists to recede, instead foregrounding their meditations on others. No protagonist seems interested in setting themselves apart, giving readers the chance to consider, in its absence, the necessity of a convention that is so deeply embedded in our Western readerly consciousness. 

The collection opens with the story “Phillip Is Dead,” and follows the recounting of one woman’s memories of a narcissistic, and eventually estranged, ex-boyfriend who is “resurrected” in her mind “and killed, in one swift blow,” the fatal knock being the email relaying his death. The story focuses on describing Phillip—his demeanor, his ideas, his effect on her—in contrast to the narrator’s relationship with her current partner. Phillip’s constant vacillation between vulnerability and acerbity is what initially draws the narrator in, folding her into something desperate and wanting. Her younger self craved his approval, and “drank his reactions thirstily.” Phillip, too, was in the narrator’s thrall to a degree. Their shared and perpetual suffering together is symbiotic. Phillip believes it feeds his art; the narrator’s past self, on the other hand, views pain as a measure of truth—an end unto itself—which she eventually unlearns by means of a healthier relationship. Though this is the story of someone whose self-hood changes, she directly attributes its shape to whomever she is in love with at the time.

Across this collection, we meet: a narrator who recalls the women who once looked after her as a child, each of whom she considers emulating as she nears adulthood; a woman who encounters the ghost of her late aunt and converses with her, hoping to learn more about her lost relative and herself; a woman who is nanny to an old schoolmate’s baby, and in love with a man who is engaged to another woman; a Chinese-American teen whose adolescence is spent in the shadow of her white best friend, and whose early adulthood is spent in the shadow of their remembered friendship, among other deeply reflective female protagonists. The stories collected showcase myriad takes on self-examination, all of which begin and end with the narrator’s most significant relationships.

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The final story, “Odd Women,” much like the first, wears the collection’s overarching theme like a bespoke mantle. The story follows three women, each with a unique ability that is somehow linked to the concept of identity, of seeing and being seen. Vandana can become immaterial at will. Octavia’s appearance changes depending on who is viewing her and what that person needs to see. Ursula is able to shed any aspect of herself—kindness, anxiety, morality, desire—which then becomes its own self with its own physical body that waits at home among its fellow Ursulas for its turn to exist out in the world. At the behest of her lover, Vandana trains herself to possibly fight crime, only to temporarily lose her ability and her sense of self when her lover, who is more interested in what Vandana can do than in Vandana herself, loses interest. Octavia finally grows tired of being only who others say she is, and risks dissolution in the pursuit of learning what she looks like to herself. Ursula sheds selves until she realizes she can never come back together as one, thus deciding which among them should go on. It’s an incredible finish to an excellent collection that hides its innovation within thoughtful observations on sympathetic topics.

The writings of Miller and Jin present us with two sides of one coin: the self and the other. Each approach offers valuable emotional insight, but combining the two offers innumerable opportunities for both self-discovery and a deepening connection to the world around us. It is only right to bear oneself in mind as life happens—particularly, in light of our inability to fully experience any life but our own. Yet, regarding others with the same depth of attention we give ourselves could leave us with a more expansive understanding of who we are, both together and apart.

FICTION
Total
by Rebecca Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 12th, 2022

FICTION
Self-Portrait with Ghost
by Meng Jin
Mariner Books
Published July 5th



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