Not a Self-Help Book

By Yi Shun Lai


Shade Mountain Press
May 2016

Reviewed by John David Harding


Anyone who has ever given up on a dream in order to get a "real job" will relate to Marty Wu, the protagonist of Yi Shun Lai's debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book. Marty works as an advertising sales agent for NYC-based Retirees' Review (think AARP The Magazine). Marty's boss (also her ex-boyfriend) is the annoyingly perfect Stafford, who regularly condescends to Marty in his charming yet infuriating British accent: "No one would have ever guessed an illustrator would make a great salesperson," he says to her, "but you do have such a way with people. We invested a ton in you, and we're expecting a lot back, aren't we, love?" At work and in her personal life, Marty is torn between several worlds: the corporate world and the prospect of owning her own business; a life with her mother ("Mama") in New York and a life with extended family in Taiwan; and what her mother wants for Marty's life versus what she wants. By far the most potent conflict in the book, Marty's relationship with her mother is strained at best. In other words, Marty has a mother of a problem, her mother.

Marty's various misadventures unfold chronologically and within multiple settings, crisscrossing New York, Las Vegas, and Rueitai, Taiwan. In Taiwan, Marty's extended family occupies a sprawling communal home dubbed "The Compound." Having fled insurmountable trouble at work in New York, Marty encounters family members in Taiwan who help her to uncover the truth behind her mother's past. During her stay, a complicated family history involving Marty's brother, Ken, begins to unravel. Central to this mystery is the question of why Mama gave up Ken to be raised by Mama's oldest sister in Taiwan. What was seen as a selfless act of love between sisters (Mama's sister wanted a child but couldn't find a husband) might have actually been something more troubling, but Mama in typical fashion has little to say on the subject. Instead, she constantly berates Marty for failing to live up to her expectations, and even resorts to physical abuse to express her disappointment. Tellingly, Marty rarely stands up to her mother. Having suffered this abuse for most of her life, she is too tired to defend herself.

Perhaps this is why Marty's dreams of opening her own costume shop have stalled. Marty fantasizes about designing bespoke costumes for every occasion, or just something to wear for fun. She even daydreams about how she would dress certain people if given the chance. In Las Vegas, for example, Marty surveys a crowd milling around the hotel pool, and begins to dress them in her mind:

I'd put that girl in a one-piece maillot, high-neck, haltered keyhole back, as opposed to the tiny two-piece she has to keep readjusting . . . And that girl, who looks like she's just discovering what it means to be a pretty girl at a Las Vegas pool, I'd put her in a full-length maxi-dress, in a jersey fabric that lets her feel gorgeous but doesn't make her prey. The lady in the muumuu? The one who probably came from Minneapolis? I'd like to see what she looks like in a wrap dress cover-up type thing.

In addition to bringing out the best in people through fashion, Marty imagines that her costume shop could inspire greater empathy by allowing people to "try on someone else's life." It makes sense that empathy would figure centrally into Marty's aspirations, since empathy is what is most missing from her relationship with Mama.

Throughout the novel, Marty seeks solutions to these problems in the pages of self-help books bearing silly, platitudinous titles (Proactive Lists for the Low-Activity Procrastinator; Meditation for the Rest of Us). Though somewhat ambivalent toward the boilerplate advice in these books, Marty is open to trying anything that might help. One of them—The Language of Paying Attention to YOU—advocates for journaling as a way to process one's life, so Marty decides to give it a shot. What we find in Not a Self-Help Book is Marty's journal. Each journal entry is essentially a micronarrative providing insight into Marty's innermost thoughts while advancing the story. Mostly epistolary, the novel includes several sections of spontaneous scripts, a screenplay version of Marty's life. One such example occurs when Marty describes an awkward conversation with Stafford. She is worried she might lose a big account because the clients think that their advertising executive, Chris, has a thing for Marty. Stafford is less than sympathetic, and uses this as an opportunity to control Marty's relationship with Chris (whom she secretly adores):

MARTY: Well, maybe if I take myself out of the equation—maybe if they're just dealing with you—
STAFFORD: You're asking me to close your deal for you? I presume you still want the commission?
MARTY: I just need you to help me a little bit.
STAFFORD: Okay, first of all, I wouldn't dream of taking your commission from you, or even credit for the thing. You're my salesperson, and you deserve the credit. But Marty—
MARTY: Anything, Stafford. What?
STAFFORD: If this thing works, you must promise me that you won't see Chris.
MARTY is silent.
STAFFORD: I'm serious, love. You can't see him socially, okay? It would be awkward.
MARTY: Okay, fine.

Here and elsewhere, Lai makes the epistolary form feel fresh and new, but of course it is quite old, as seen in one of the earliest examples of the novel as we know it, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. This odd equivalent might not be so odd, considering that both Robinson and Marty are stranded on islands, both are separated from their home countries, both must balance their parents' wishes against their own, both journal incessantly, and both are facing tremendous odds. The clearest difference, though, is that while Robinson faces an eventual death if he does not escape the island, Marty faces a figurative death—an emotional death—if she does not shed her noxious life in New York. Upon visiting Taiwan, Marty reflects on the idea of leaving New York forever:

Taiwan! Land of my birth! Land of a huge, friendly house—a compound, really—with friendly cousins visiting almost every day, and land where my brother lives now, land where my old-maid aunt lives and a land so different from where I am now—so different from where I'd be going back to—that maybe, just maybe, it could be a chance to start over.

That the narrative is driven by an emotional, rather than life-or-death, dilemma does not diminish its tension. Marty's situation is compelling because she is a dynamic character whom the audience will root for. Simultaneously sardonic and sincere, Marty speaks to her diary (and to the reader) as one might address a very good friend. It's as if Marty is addressing you personally, and the effect makes you feel closely connected to the story. For example, when disaster strikes at work, Marty writes, "I don't think I've ever been so royally fucked in my life," and I couldn't read fast enough to find out what had happened.

Eventually, Marty learns the painful truth behind her mother and brother's separation, discovering in the process a great deal about herself—not in an Eat, Pray, Love kind of way, but through a genuine epiphany that teaches Marty a new way of seeing the world through Mama's eyes. This hard-earned truth does not excuse her mother's behavior, but rather explains the sources of her anger. What results between Marty and Mama is not a perfect relationship à la The Gilmore Girls, but something closer to a rapprochement. Marty's diary might not be a self-help book, but the nuggets of wisdom that emerge from her journeys are perhaps more useful than all of her self-help books combined.