Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

24 Dec 2010

(Short Story) Rain by Charlson Ong

(Reaction) Our Fathers by: Antonio Conejos

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Many a tale has been written about fathers and sons. Myth tells of how Zeus, the youngest yet the craftiest, rose up against his sire, Cronus. Religion establishes Jesus, divine and human, as the perfect (obedient) Son to the perfect Father. Even wronged, the senior will always take the junior back, as in the case of the prodigal son. Hubris is the domain of the son, a land inherited from the father. As Alexander Pope succinctly puts it, "We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow, / Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so."

This rich dynamic between sire and sired is an eternal theme precisely because of the cyclical/paradoxical nature of the relationship. As the father's sun sets, the son's is in full glory, dazzling and blinding in its youth. What the son becomes, the father can never be. Yet the father is the perpetual yardstick of the son, the ever present mark to test one's measure. Thus, what the son becomes, while not open to the father; is however, dependent on the father. In time, sons become fathers and what was once scorned in their fathers is now scorned in them. Inherent in the relationship is the inevitable day, inexorably drawing near, when every son, must eclipse his father.

"Rain" captures perfectly the tension between Ah Beng and his father. Theirs is a relationship of constant sniping and bickering. Father, an immigrant from China, cannot understand the life his son, who grew up under very different circumstances, wishes to lead. Downtrodden by life, his wife long dead, it is only his clinging on to the culture of the past that gives him some joy in the present. Yet even this is taken from his as "Lan Ping and Yung Jun", his grand twins, become "Xerxes and Antipordia", names that smack of Greek influence, names that are totally alien to his own Chinese heritage.

Embodying this loss of culture and identity is his own son, Ah Beng. Indeed, the son is the father's antithesis. While the father wishes for a doctor, what he got was a student of "English and Comparative Literature." Where the dream was for a rich offspring who could support himself, the reality was a "useless son" toiling in the same umbrella store as the father. So foreign is Ah Beng that he has a penchant for Japanese goods, items that are anathema to Father who can never forget Japan's role in WWII. Matching his father's scorn, the son retorts, "If there was any stain of insanity in me it was definitely spilled over from him."

What transpires between father and son goes beyond mere words or actions. The physical manifestation of the tension, anxiety, frustration and hatred between the two coalesces into an equally palpable force. Father is described as if a "whole life had been rained out." Thus Father is a product of the rain, just as he is the product of all his life's frustrations, "...the sea, the mad huanna huanna revenue rats, mayor's special teams, immigration officers, fixers, lackeys...", the list is endless. Yet the penultimate horror that ends this list of sighs is, "...a useless son."

Ah Beng cannot relate to the rain, it is as alien to him as his father. In a telling line, he describes the difficulty of writing in Filipino-Chinese, "a pidgin dialect revealing its pain in a unique cadence...". Similarly, the rain has its own intricate rhythm, a cadence dictated by the millions of falling drops. Moreover, Ah Beng is unable to find equilibrium in the rain, "...I answered rather too loudly, unable to modulate my voice amidst the dying rain." Mirrored in the son's struggle with the rain is his own struggle to understand his father.

Rain ushers in as well Cornelia, the catalyst that will eventually, finally, break the tenuous bond between the two men. She enters in the rain, the water lending her luminescence and beauty. Later, the effect is repeated as she chats with Ah Beng after her shower. Father however, does not approve of this flirtation and immediately moves to break it up. The ensuing scene is torturous, "the humidity punishing." It is humid before it rains, the proverbial calm before the storm. As Cornelia disengages from the two men, her skirt is "weighed down by the rain." So potent has rain become that it takes on a solid presence. The hatred between father and son that seethed for years will soon come to a head. Thus, immediately following this event, Ah Beng discovers Cornelia and Father, "...an unsteady hand on his wet member, and a sourness dripping from his mouth."

It was not always like this between father and son, the rain of hate dividing them. "Memories of long-ago affection, of straddling his neck once upon a burning summer's day...". Once, in their youth without the rain, Ah Beng and Father coexisted, indeed, were happy. Heat, the absence of rain on a summer day, is a testament to the love that once burned between them. Yet the present, with its rain and its age, the divide now great between father and son, admits that things can never be the same.

Ah Beng recounts how Vic Morrow, a seemingly indestructible childhood hero was killed in a helicopter crash. Painfully the son realizes that the father of his youth is long gone, and "...memories are never enough bringing back his spirit required a leap of faith that neither of us was capable of." Now with hatred between them, there was "...a permanent leak that had worsened with the arrival of rain." This is the slow drip of love seeping out of a dying relationship. Hatred, the rain, further compounds this escape, further adds to the estrangement between father and son.

Ah Beng is not ignorant to the link between Father and the rain. "Looking at the rain is a bit like watching my father... as you seem on the verge of grasping some tangible essence another heavy, black screen pours down leaving you empty.: These lines bring to mind the epigraph of the story, taken from the poem Somewhere I Have Never Traveled by e.e. cummings. In brief, the poem utilizes synesthesia (eg. "eyes have their silence") to revolve around another paradox, that of strength in frailty.

Indeed, the whole poem is a splendid description of how Ah Beng feels towards his father. Even though Father is old and decrepit, his son senses a remnant of what his father once was. Moreover, the son still finds himself caught up, inexplicably, in his father's now weak, grasp. A hold that should be easy to break; but this the son cannot do. The sentiment of Ah Beng comparing his father to a stock Hollywood oriental villain, "I noticed at once how impotent they are; how my father... without saying a word still inspires in me that terrible fear of death" runs parallel to "your slightest look easily will unclose me / though I have closed myself as fingers," of the poem.

In spite of Father's age and the wretchedness of his life, Ah Beng is still in awe of his father. Even though the rain of hate falls, perhaps there is a spark of love somewhere. Tantalizingly the poem reads, "in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, / or which i cannot touch because they are too near." Ah Beng, after living for so long with his Father, can no longer touch that little love that remains.

Poignantly though, Father is able to muster up one last gasp of love, before giving himself up to the rain. In his last line to his son, he mutters, "and mumbled dryly - 'take care of yourself.'" In this final act of affection for his son, the adjective dryly affirming the absence of rain, the presence of love, the father ends not on a note of bitterness but of a remembrance of years long gone, when his son was not the embodiment of everything he despised; but was merely, his son.

While the father has learned it is time to let go, Ah Beng has not yet come to this realization. Fittingly, he goes to the Golden Phoenix before seeking his father. The introduction of the phoenix is yet another subtle hint by the author that what father and son had is over. A phoenix burns in order to be reborn. However, in the constant rain of hate, there is no possibility of that. Fire is extinguished before it has a chance to revive. Thus when Ah Beng finds his father there was "not a note of recognition on his face." Pleadingly the son begs his father not to leave him, "Not like this!" He is referring not to a physical death (as indicated by the line "Take morphine or rat poison... anything!") but rather an emotional one, a permanent closure between father and son amidst the rain of hate. Giving credence to this is his tortured line, "Don't die on me," (italics supplied).

Eventually though, Ah Beng realizes that it is time. In the final moments of the story, he bows to the wishes of his father and vows, "I will never write about the old man." In turn, Father unfurls the paper umbrella, letting loose a butterfly amidst the rain. Still to the last, he is a bastion of strength in frailty. Old they may be, but fathers will always be larger than life to their sons. Ultimately this is the termination of all father and son relationships. There will come a time when the son realizes he must make his way without the man he calls father.

Review:

This is an honest story about the difficulty of relating to one's father and one's son. Despite the difficulty though, both father and son make an earnest attempt at it. The central conceit of the rain seems a tad contrived at times but is well executed.

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