16 Aug / The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison [in aOnline]
My initial reaction – and it does not fade through the course of the book – is utter annoyance at yet another non-Asian exoticizing, objectifying, making inscrutable the Asian culture and its people. But then Kathryn Harrison has made a literary career of writing about taboo subjects: witness her shocking memoir, The Kiss, about her adult, incestuous affair with her father, her first two novels, Thicker Than Water and Exposure, also about less-than-acceptable family bonds, and her historical novel, Poison, about a troubled woman’s lustful pairing with a priest during the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition.
Having found critical acclaim in the historical novel genre, Harrison tries again, this time turning to the East, or should I say, the Orient, in The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, to weave a tale of erotic, exotic lust and betrayal with no redemption in sight (unless you count unexpected death).
The long tale opens in the elaborate Cote d’Azur home of Mrs. Arthur Cohen who is interviewing candidates for a private swimming instructor. Not all is as it seems, as the candidates soon find out. Mrs. Arthur Cohen is anything but French, or Jewish. She’s a tiny, elegant Chinese woman with bound feet. Her binding sessions in the chair started at the tender age of 5. And, as it is too-oft repeated, she never cried out.
As the story unfolds, Mrs. Cohen turns out to be May-li, a high-priced prostitute who refused to ever service Chinese men, who was also once Chao-Tsing, the abused 14-year-old fourth wife of an odious silk merchant. Oh, but she’s really a lesbian.
Back in Shanghai, the nervous virgin Arthur Cohen, unable to live without her, much less the mysteries of her crescent moons, marries May and installs her in the lavish home of his overzealously hygienic sister, her husband, and their two daughters. May develops a life-long special bond with the younger child, Alice, who idolizes her exotic aunt. Eventually, Alice’s father makes it bigger than big, her mother burns down the big house, and the family relocates to Nice where May takes in creative charity cases. And yet she can never get over the loss of her own children – a daughter she gave away during her brothel days, and the daughter she and Arthur lost. And even though Alice was supposedly “hers,” well, Alice was never really hers. So she goes for a swim and never comes back. Yet another Asian woman sacrificed.
I gave up dogearing the pages that made me want to throw the book out the window, most especially a scene in which May is arrested in fancy Fortnum & Mason for creating a ruckus as a “furrener” being carried around by two “furren” boys in furs – and she speaks no less! Of course, I might have missed the point entirely. Maybe it was all the Caucasians and their misplaced sense of utter superiority that Harrison was trying to expose. But then again, maybe not.
As I forced myself to plod along, from a Russian officer with a dead daughter, to a lisping math teacher without family, to a French translator traveling with a frozen dead brother wrapped in a valuable rug, to a lost daughter who spits on their mother as her only response, to a desperate husband demanding to drink the washing water of his wife’s rotting (bound) feet, I found myself rather numbed to the sensationalism of it all. And, in the end, I chocked it up to an exercise in utter patience.