My wife and I ate at Chengdu Taste in Rosemead this past Saturday. (Chengdu Taste is a Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant, one of the many amazing Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, which really might be the best thing about living in Los Angeles. Really.) The food was spiced in such a way that I actually felt drunk not only while I ate it but also for quite a long while after I ate it (no, drunkenness is the not the recommendation here). What they do at Chengdu Taste is use hundreds of Sichuan peppercorns (not really pepper but berries) in their dishes, including the largest dish we ordered, described as fish boiled in green peppers. This dish looks like a huge silver tureen of fish and bean sprouts submerged in a slightly clearer than chicken stock stock throughout which bob hundreds of jalapeno slices, many chunks of thai chilies, and hundreds more Sichuan peppercorns:
The first two peppers: capsaicin-rich. So this is a hot dish.
The last one numbs your mouth. Your lips. Your tongue. You can take a single Sichuan peppercorn – this is tremendous fun! – and sort of nibble it against your tongue and, for a good fifteen minutes, the tip of your tongue will tingle numbly. Things will taste . . . heightened. A sip of water is glory. Food tastes glory. Beer: glory. The crazy smoked-ham tasting plum juice they serve at Chengdu? You got it. For fifteen minutes. One little peppercorn.
Again: in the fish dish we ordered: hundreds of peppercorns.
I don’t know if this is how the dish or similar dishes are prepared in actual Sichuan. I hope not. I prefer to think that the chefs at Chengdu were making the dish one day, measuring out the peppercorns, and they thought, You know what? To hell with it. These taste weird and crazy in small amounts? Let’s go HUGE. Let’s make it INSANE.
A few words on balance.
I posit that balance – of whatever elements of whatever thing is being created – is a characteristic with a deep and often unspoken value. That we – critics, creators, audiences – value balance. That when things feel/taste/sound/appear balanced, we are pleased by this balance. We may not always be aware of this valued balance – but it’s there. (If I were working harder on this – it’s just a blog post! – I’d do a word search of Critical Flame and NYROB and NYTBR and LAROB reviews to see how frequently balance in composition is praised – and if it’s ever, ever denigrated. Which I doubt.)
Things that are out of balance can seem . . . off. Wrong. Poorly organized. Incorrect.
Balance, we think, is good. Imbalance – too salty! too much yellow! that scene didn’t fit into the larger narrative! why is that guitar solo SO LONG? – imbalance is bad.
This is a vote for imbalance.
Imbalance is the distillation. The commitment to an element that (because of the creative fidelity to it alone) blows the accompanying elements away: they bashfully retreat to the background while this singular elements shouts and screams and laughs and points and high-fives everyone and everyone high-fives the singular element of imbalance because it’s so certain, so memorable, so . . . singular. It is impolite or rather it’s not impolite so much as indifferent: it doesn’t care. It’s a zealot. This matters. This thing only.
Textual examples of imbalance:
- Marlowe’s Tamburlaine,
- boiled fish in green peppers, Chengdu Taste,
- Daniel Day Lewis in The Gangs of New York (or really any Daniel Day Lewis role),
- any film by Baz Luhrman (proving that imbalance, while memorable, can be crap),
- apparently Miranda July on fiction panels (see this review!),
- the “fuck” detecting scene in The Wire,
and so on, but that’s what comes to mind just now.
All of which brings me to a particular story in The Complete History of New Mexico, an excellent collection of stories by Kevin McIlvoy.
“Chain” is the first story in the collection. It is a zany, enthusiastic, ebullient threat to its audience: forward this letter to seven people . . . or else. The ‘voice’ of the poem, cheerful and crazed, is established in the first paragraph:
“Love crosses impossible distances for any man who says Yes, but stops on the very spot in the very hour that one man will not. How far will you travel and for what treasure? Leavers believe that Believers will leave.”
The disinterestedness in narrative balance here – in clearly explaining the ‘story’ to the reader via contextualizing the elements we generally expect to find (character, situation, tension, etc) – shows liberation: the posture of the voice (the author, really) is rebellious, cantankerous, self-driven. So: new. And strange. That final line of the opening paragraph – Leavers believe that Believers will leave – is returned to several more times in the story, inverted and reversed, and it functions as our refrain. That the story is built around a vague koan-like rhyme shows the author’s true priority: to have fun writing bonkers sentences within a bonkers constraint. (I mean ‘bonkers’ in a very positive way here.)
“Chain” goes on to describe – in chaotic and sing-songy rushing rhyme – the ways in which the forwarding of this ‘letter’ has saved the lives of many over the years, and damaged the lives of those who failed to forward it. But these anchoring details that – while vivid and funny – are almost beside the point: most of the paragraphs in this very brief (four pages) story are cheerfully obnoxious charges to its audience, to write this letter down and send it forth . . . sort of, anyway, as they even drop the notion of clarity and succumb to strange imagery that I find wonderful:
“Heaven sends scissors that fit your hand, and demands you use them to cut Doubt. Cut it down, spit it out like laughing underwater. Face it the way you face your cord being cut, or the jump that begins your flight, or the first silence that announces your deafness, or the distance and dearness and the blame and forgiveness sounding all at once in her voice, or the loss of breath, and the next, and the next, last loss, or her closeness that even in remembrance feels like wondrous blindness.”
‘Voice-driven’ is a phrase I’m hesitant to use. It’s been used before, a bit more widely applied than I mean it here, used to encompass many other texts that aren’t what I’d term voice-driven. But for me, this story, “Chain,” is voice-driven. It is a story that belongs spoken aloud in the world, spoken in a rushing rush faithful to its composition, a rush that doesn’t bother with what we usually mean by ‘story.’
It has no balance.* It stumbles and sways. It is drunk. It is nuts. It is great.
*Though several other stories in The Complete History of New Mexico similarly dispense with balance and wholeness, the collection is – on the whole – very balanced: the title novella is a masterpiece, an amazingly sad and beautiful mystery, vast and eerie and personal in the manner of, say, True Detective (which it predates), only set in elementary school, only good for longer than just the first half. And other stories feel more like that type of balanced story most of us readers have come to expect when we read.
But it is the bizarre certainty of stories like “Chain” – artful, singular, impassioned – that makes the collection indelible.