Thursday, March 02, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss
February 18, 2006
Gordon Hauptfleisch

Darin Strauss, the author of Chang and Eng, hopes that his compelling and richly atmospheric book is "ruled a novel and not a history." The apparent history, however, is remarkable enough.

When Chang and Eng Bunker were born in 1811 in Siam (as Thailand was called at the time), they were connected at the lower chest by a small band of flesh. First deemed an evil omen by the king, they barely escaped death, and as teens their peaceful lives as fishermen were disrupted by an "invitation" for then to travel the world in a successful new career as public exhibitions. Performing acrobatics and feats of strength, the twins appeared before royalty, public figures and hundreds of thousands of people, sparking all varieties of delight and derision.

Eventually Chang and Eng settled down in North Carolina, first operating a country store, and then becoming farmers. They married sisters and between them fathered 21 children. In 1874, at the age of 62, Chang died of a cerebral clot, followed within hours by Eng.

Since no definitive record of the twins' life exists, Strauss overcomes the "confusion of legend, sideshow hyperbole, and editorial invention" by effectively melding fact — and an engrossing dose of social history, vividly rendered setting, colorful characters and a twist ending — with the fiction. "Where I have discarded or finessed or invented the details of Chang and Eng's life, he notes in an Afterword, "it was only to elbow the facts toward a novel's own ideas of truth, which is something else entirely."

And indeed, the finessing and invention constitute more than embellishment or filling in the gaps. The humanity and history that Strauss has infused into his novel is more than enough to turn subjectivity and speculation into a fully realized portrait. Yes, it is something else entirely, a patchwork "truth" perhaps less creditable than the most delving, substantial kind of biography, but nonetheless as focused and exploratory. Also more fun, and more poignant.

More discerning and considered too, perhaps. For whatever enjoyment Chang and Eng brought to the world in their roles as always-on showmen, and whatever the personal embattlements and heartaches they faced together in their serene "struggling" with life, they also — more than most — enjoyed and endured an intense give-and-take interrelationship. It is Strauss' achievement in explicating the tensions and dependencies of two very different personalities throughout their lives that comprises a consistently strong thematic force unifying Chang and Eng.

"That is the way with us," contends Eng, the narrator. "Our natural awareness of one another created a spark that in its white glow smoothed differences, answered questions, brought the world into our rhythm. That did not mean we were of one mind."

As Strauss envisions it, the introspective and bookish Eng's resentment is fueled by a lifelong and medically unviable desire to sever that "flat hanging appendage" that bonds him to his more outgoing, boorish brother. Not being of one mind leads to trouble in their career, as evidenced by the memorable scene of a teetotaler Eng addressing the North Carolina Ladies Union for Temperance while an increasing alcoholic Chang sneaks sips from a flask. And though the book gets bogged down by too many incidents of domestic squabbling and Eng's marital ruminations, the differences between the twins also lead to complications during marriage, which Eng views as the hope from all the "unremitting current of derision, gawking, and distaste that was our equilibrium."

Eng's hopes, and Chang's, whether it be for family or career, may have had a rocky course, but they were none the less realized. In the novel the "truth" of Chang and Eng lies in the way Strauss successfully humanizes the original Siamese twins, exploring their defeats and resiliency. In real life, the example of Chang and Eng helped change the way people regarded conjoined twins and others with physical disabilities, and proved that those who were different could have normal lives. The fiction bears out the fact.


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