Lethal Irony: On Han Ong’s “Fixer Chao”

Zoe Hu reviews Han Ong’s 2001 novel “Fixer Chao” and sees an allegory of the writers and con artists of our own era.

By Zoë HuFebruary 17, 2024

Lethal Irony: On Han Ong’s “Fixer Chao”

Fixer Chao by Han Ong. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages.

THE CON ARTIST and the writer are similar creatures. Imaginative outsiders, often mercenary, both are executors of collective falsehoods. Both cultivate audiences who will not just believe but live a lie. To write or to con means keeping a story viable, like a balloon punched continuously into the air. Erudition matters little in this act; what’s required of each figure is a sense of rhythm, an instinct for the correct posture at the correct moment, an eye for beauty. Intelligence may even be a liability—the best con artists and writers need to delude themselves along with everyone else.


Both types of work have also been made more difficult by the modern perfection of American capitalism. Society has peeled the avant-garde off art: in literature, workshop fiction and a publishing monopoly have crowded out genuinely experimental writing; in society, finance and commerce have become so pyramid-shaped as to make the truly creative con redundant. Virtue and vice have been hydraulically concertinaed together, into the dense and sugary crust of a meaningless culture where everything, especially human rapacity, is licit. We can read about this sorry cultural turn in literature itself, which has satirized and lamented the dwindling of American grit for decades. In Saul Bellow’s 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift, the protagonist-author sells out to Broadway and spends his time with neighborhood mobsters who behave more like “American executives.” Meanwhile, all the poets have disappeared: “The country is proud of its dead poets,” concludes Bellow. “[P]oets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.”


With each year, the con artist and the writer edge towards obsolescence, abandoning us to our sagging era of low-effort scams and mediocre fiction. We are left today with a deformed successor figure: the poseur is not quite an artist, not quite a criminal, but the awful sediment swilling at the bottom of whatever you get when you mix the two. We find him in every downtown scene, which is why we have more neologisms for him than we do for the true confidence man of yore: clout-chaser, impostor, faker. The poseur makes his social network his life, his craft an infomercial. While both con artist and writer depend on their audiences’ capacity to believe, leveraging spectacle for faith, the poseur does the opposite. His work is transparently bad and unconvincing, but he is permitted to cash his checks nonetheless. The poseur is not fooling anyone; this somehow makes him more successful.


How can one defeat such a cynic, whose cynicism is so catching? For an answer, we might turn to an old, strange novel, set in New York City during a moment of peak poseur: Fixer Chao by Han Ong was published a little over two decades ago, in 2001, becoming a Los Angeles Times bestseller before eventually petering out of print. Its protagonist is William Paulinha, a Filipino American man who passes himself off as a Chinese feng shui specialist in order to ingratiate himself with, and then rip off, New York’s cultural elite. The issue is that William is trying to dupe a group of people who constitutionally can’t be duped; his victims have already sold out to a shallow and compromising milieu, in which art is never scraped clean of the sticky plaque of money, in which no one maintains any illusions about talent.


Because of current publishing trends, as well as the accident of Ong’s identity, Fixer is more likely to be recuperated today as an addition to the Asian American canon rather than a continuation on an age-old theme. But like many postwar American novels, it is obsessed with the craft of writing and not a little resentful of its practitioners. William’s victims are mainly the power brokers of American letters—authors, poets, publishers—and his story unfolds as a rageful dispatch about the bruisings and indignities one suffers in a publishing world overrun by poseurs. The novel would have us believe that William is set to destroy their lives, exposing the horrid quality of their writing as he wrenches into his possession their cultural capital. But revenge has no guarantees; Fixer is, after all, the vigorous but doomed effort of an author critiquing literature through literature. The New York book world, decaying from the inside out, cannot be killed or saved—especially if we won’t stop reading about it.


¤


William’s scam starts with money, or the piteous need for it. In his younger days, he made his living selling sex to strangers in the bathrooms of Penn Station, though at the novel’s outset he’s making do as a typist. For him, money is a “monstrous, lurking thing,” a cold absence felt in every room. Things begin to change when, at a bar in Times Square, he’s recognized for what he isn’t. “You a Chink?” a stranger sidles up to ask. Race can be a gift or a curse; in the United States, inside a room crowded with drunken strangers, it’s usually just an unfortunate conversation starter.


The stranger—soon to be William’s partner in crime—is Shem, a successful Jewish writer who has had the bad luck of marrying into a family of other, more successful Jewish writers. Shem’s father-in-law, the acclaimed novelist Bill Hood, has published books “on every college syllabus in the United States.” This fictional lineage conjures Rothian writers and Rothian father figures—but Shem is merely its nubby dead end, a vestigial presence in a literary world that runs on “powermongering” and “self-advertisement.” Spurred in equal measure by his ambitions and his hang-ups (who isn’t?), Shem presents William with the scheme fully formed: William Paulinha is to adopt the false identity of William Chao, a feng shui master newly arrived to the country, billed by Shem as “a soul directly linked to the ancestral past.” Shem will direct his literary peers to William’s business; William will take their money while versing himself in real feng shui, so that he may arrange the luxury apartments in direct contradiction to its precepts. With each inauspicious layout, the pair take renewed vengeance on the elite, “sneaking into their homes and doing ugly, hateful things to the things they love.” A curious modus operandi, for it implies that feng shui really works, or, if you want to be truly pessimistic about it, that the commodity fetish is no fetish: inanimate objects exert a true power over people.


Fixer opens with a confession from William that he, too, had long wanted to be a writer, though he’d never bothered to see if he had the necessary qualities of “clarity, focus, insight, concision, the ownership of something to say.” These skills, scratched out on the first page, form something of an inverted rubric for the novel: every writer William meets throughout the rest of the book fails to demonstrate or even aspire to them. His clients are perfect hacks who were either born into the penthouse class or gained their membership by hawking bestsellers. Each person William encounters is a new entry in a catalog of derision: there is Paul Chan Chuang Toledo Lin, a favored Asian writer who has penned a “hocus opus” meant to both chide and comfort his white readership. There is the narcissistic editor, living in “a glass bubble filled with money,” who foolishly believes that her work involves “making decisions with words which convey truth.” We also meet a gallery owner who licenses her artists’ photography for advertisements, “sometimes before the pictures were even shot, like portraits made on commission.” With every target, Ong exposes the scene’s false tastes, its emptiness of meaning and endemic aversion to discernment. Whether panning a book or confronted with a hoax, William’s victims can’t do the one thing they’re being paid to do: tell the difference between good and bad.


Fixer strives to “reveal the naked, fatty, vulnerable thing” beneath the lustrous surface of culture—what William describes as a neurotic ethos, “closer to death than to life,” mottling the lives of New York’s tastemakers. The book, however, brings William closer to the poseurs than he plans. Like the scene he defrauds, Ong’s protagonist operates mostly through pretension rather than flat-out falsehood: he exaggerates reality, overrates his credentials, shades in biographical blanks with a liberal hand. Everything William proposes has a squinting resemblance to the truth, which makes him a mild brand of criminal and, in the eyes of his white customers, a disappointing piece of exotica. The fake William Chao claims to have been born in Hong Kong and then sent abroad to escape the obscure and powerful enemies of his family. And like the real William Paulinha, William Chao boasts neither a Chinese education nor fluency in the language: “I had a peripatetic life,” he explains to his customers. There’s no authenticity schmaltz here, only the amnesiac, diasporic template that is found stamped across most of Asian America. William is telling a true lie when he says to a client that, after leaving Hong Kong, he “had to become [a] new person so totally that the footprints would be completely wiped out.” Even his name, he openly admits, is fake.


¤


The feng shui does weirdly succeed, cursing the penthouses and their owners with material misfortune. But Fixer shows that there are no winners or losers in the last-ditch sabotage of an already worthless system. Though William started as a berserker on the scene, his act becomes distracted and troubled. As the rich absorb him into their exclusive world, they “infect” him with “a lingering sense of discontent” about his own life. The deeper he plunges into the fakery, the more William is changed. He comes home to find his “own slummy apartment” looking cushier thanks to the influence of his rich patrons. He realizes that he has, through expensive haircuts and new clothes, become a good-looking man. Even worse, his lies have provoked that most bourgeois of emotions—aimless guilt—which in his era of poverty he would have never deigned to feel.


So William becomes like one of the many poseurs in the novel, who eye each other carnivorously, covetously. Are you more successful than me? Are you less talented? And is it not a damning indictment of our scene that neither answer matters? The redundancy of the question means that no character in the novel is capable of real aesthetic or ethical judgment—not even William. In this sense, Fixer sits alongside other novels of the postwar era that have satirized American publishing by tearing frantically at their own roots. William Gaddis, Percival Everett, Gilbert Sorrentino, Bellow—their books crawl with failed writers, stupid writers, former writers, sellouts, impostors, talentless and overrated darlings. The world in these novels is portrayed as an arena for the strategic treatment of people as collectibles. In The Recognitions (1955), Gaddis describes the intellectuals of Greenwich village as “a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size,” and that about sums it up.


One would think that William’s racial difference—what he in fact calls his “racial grievance”—would offer a reminder, a firm sense, of some outsider purity, but William ultimately loses this last ballast of righteousness as well. As Chao, he grows closer to his white clientele than to their Brown servants, whom he finds he can no longer look in the eye. The battlefield between rich and poor turns to muddy ground, washed out by an equalizing but terrible rain. In character and in real life, William can claim no relationship to Asia or to the global underclass. (His cover story has its own historical bitterness: Hong Kong, the feng shui master’s adopted place of origin, has abused and exploited its large Filipino population—most of them female domestic workers—since the 1970s.) Interesting, then, that one of William’s principal marks is Suzy Yamada, a Japanese Canadian socialite who cultivates the company of the writers that William and Shem despise. Though she’s a shrewd woman, Suzy fails to recognize William as either an intraregional faker or a postcolonial insurgent. Of all of William’s customers, it is Suzy, a fellow Asian, who will suffer the most from the Chao hoax, even as her white counterparts manage to rebound and claw back their initial stations. Whatever axis of struggle race might represent in this campaign against New York’s most privileged, it is an axis forever skewed, redirected, thwarted into confusion.


¤


The chief and lethal irony of Fixer is that the more William persecutes the rich, the richer he himself becomes. By the end of it all, he is stranded in meaninglessness, unsure what his mission has accomplished, or for what reasons he’d been chosen to live it. “[M]y revenge,” he says, “had nothing to do with me, but instead was something I’d walked in on at just the right moment.” There seem to be no real historical agents in Fixer Chao, only inevitability, which in this case is no revolutionary telos. “I […] had been chosen to be an instrument,” William complains. Michael Herr, writing about finding himself in wartime Vietnam, once quipped that “Why me?” was “the saddest question in the world.” “Why not?” is its even sadder answer.


When William’s act is finally exposed, as it must be, there is no justice or comeuppance for either side. Other writers pen their fictionalizations of the scandal and rush them off to the printers, then return to their regular well-larded lives. What had originally been an act of class warfare for William becomes more grist for Manhattan’s publishing houses. (The New York Post runs its story with the headline: “Shanghaied!”) All of Fixer’s characters—rich, poor, William himself—end the book having come under the machine gun spray of Ong’s satire, which heeds no social divisions. “At some point,” William says, “it was no longer enough [for me] to hate them for their wealth. Or even for their crassness, their Neanderthal sophistication.” The lines are drawn and erased; William doesn’t loathe the rich anymore. He loathes all of humanity.


And yet, even a more formally perfect story of class revenge—one that could straighten social life into a Lukácsian landscape of types and historical antagonisms—cannot defeat the bourgeoisie, only describe it. Such is literature’s limit; to narrate the power differentials of American life, even if you tell them slant or sharply or hilariously, does not change the position of the pieces on the chessboard. William tells us what he thinks about literature’s capacity to critique life—and thus change it—in a description of another character’s book as “a screed, a rant, a complaint, huffing and puffing. Versus? My plan, a definite course of action: revenge.” And yet his plot is just that: a plot—by which I mean a series of fictional events—in which William torments the rich only on the level of the page. When we retire to our world, the world in which Fixer Chao was published, the revenge blanches into literary satire: a “romp,” in publishing parlance, rather than real redistribution. What is for William violence against the elite is, for Ong and for us, a critique of their bad writing, levied through the very form that the bastards have so assiduously corrupted.


So William never writes his novel. The book ends with him moving to California to dodge the police and live out middle age in obscurity. Having presided over rare Modiglianis and fine coffee tables, he chooses the pop consciousness of the West Coast and the cultural trash—Agatha Christie and summer blockbusters—that he can enjoy without thinking. What do we make of this, of a refusal that might double as self-preservation? On a trip to the Met at the beginning of the novel, William and his friend sit through a graceless performance—the pat writing, the manufactured delight of the audience—and then walk out in the middle of intermission. In bed that night, he feels “[s]ome revelation triggered by our turning our backs on what everyone else was celebrating.” His is a sublime negativity, surpassing the discretion of the snob or the critic. In a novel about lying, this moment is the honest-to-god truth—a simple but epiphanic “no.” At times, faced with everything on offer in our United States of America, that’s all one can say.


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Unlike his protagonist, of course, Ong finished his novel. He saw to the end his story of literature’s impotence, its fallen place in the rut of American capitalism. What solution does he give us? What escape hatch? Is there anything we can take from the novel form now that it has proven to be useless—less efficacious in changing people’s fates than even the magical thinking of feng shui?


Ong clearly remains invested in style—perhaps the one element that can withstand the onslaught of commercial avarice and literary shilling that Fixer describes—and his investment bears out: his writing is unlike anything the mediocre characters of Fixer would be capable of. It charms and surprises, gives us sentences that are awkward, startling, beautiful, at times pedantic, craning towards the revelatory and the weird. A man’s downcast facial expression is described as “marbles rolling down a ramp”; the sky is “the rumpled hem of someone’s skirt.” Interspersed through the novel are long diatribes about club music and peep shows that read like the interventions of a disembodied essayist, flexing an anthropological love for the city—this essayist may be Ong himself.


Fixer exaggerates the grotesqueries of our social reality, subjecting the stuff of life to the crazed, spasming, singular peristalsis of William’s subjectivity. In the process, we recognize in Fixer our own world, and are somehow destabilized by its sly claim on our familiarity. The novel’s critique of the hypocrisy of American culture is inseparable from its exhilarating style, which is that culture’s very exception. This is important, because our critiques must come in new and changing vernaculars if they are ever to be effective. William’s enemies—with their “hamfisted, dumbed-down” work, their “patented, pet” themes—have pulped the English language into a mash of cliché and deceit. A good book, on the other hand, reinvigorates a public deadened by the ordinary, rendering unique configurations of thought and language possible. To laud Fixer’s formal or linguistic properties is not to say that literature’s sole preserve is beauty or aesthetic pleasure—we are long past the point of being able to afford this notion—but to say that critique is a kind of romance, and every romance must be recommitted to, again and again, through a striving for new forms, new words. Surrounded by the timeless fraudulence of people who hate art and want to see it destroyed, the only word William Paulinha could find was “no.” Ong, however, gave us 500 pages of tragedy, comedy, and fury, producing a worldview in which style is taken as both a political signature and an imperiled rarity. What we say now, in response, is up to us.

LARB Contributor

Zoe Hu is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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