‘Things to Make and Break’ Breaks Hearts

4 Stars

Things to Make and Break Cover
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

“Things to Make and Break” is at once about everyone and no one in particular. In her debut collection of 11 short stories, May-Lan Tan seamlessly takes on a different persona in each story, varying in ages and sexualities, narrating in first person the love and loss her characters experience. It’s easy to imagine her characters as anyone — the person across the aisle on the subway, the cashier at the local shop, the odd group of people at the next table in a restaurant. Her personation is fluid, impressively so, describing the desolate relationship of a transgender lesbian woman in one story while convincingly taking on the voice of a college boy in another.

The shining piece of the collection is “Candy Glass”: Nearly 50 pages long and stylized almost like a screenplay, it traces the attraction between Hollywood star Alexa and D.C., her stunning transgender stunt double. Their love — if you can call it that — is tangled. Tan’s usage of the script style takes the story between first person perspectives of both characters, sometimes intercepted with third person point of views, creating a seamless picture of the story effectively reminiscent of a movie.

Asian narratives are integral to this collection. Vivian Chiang narrates “Would Like to Meet,” where she works at a gift shop that sells faux-Japanese dolls, which her roommate Sachiko says that people only have in their house if they’ve lost a baby. Then there’s Lily, a chirpy nine-year-old in Hong Kong whouses her mom’s night out in “Date Night” to learn about her new Indonesian nanny. With characters a little bit older, Tan creates the siblings of a newly married couple — who got married “in front of God and five hundred Korean people — in “101.” Even if they’re not the main characters, Tan adds Asian friends, companions, and their families who are depicted with traditional values and archetypes. Take for example Kumi, girl Lauren’s friend in “Laurens” — a sad story about the parallel lives of two children, one boy and one girl, both named Lauren — with a clean beautiful house and an orthodontist dad, and whose parents are “as calm as people on TV.”

The 11 stories range in mood from whimsical to deeply disturbing to lightheartedly playful, yet the most resounding messages from Tan come out of the dark, melancholy pieces. The ending for both of the Laurens in “Laurens” drips with blood and loss, even though the beginning of the story already seemed dire: “The summer their mothers suicided, the Laurens went to SeaWorld San Diego, where they occupied the same quadrant of the bleachers during the Shamu show, their screams mingling.” Vivian’s date with a married couple in “Would Like to Meet” ends with an unexpectedly morbid twist, added to her own close brush with death just a day before. “Ghosts” is not so ghoulish as it is quiet, with Tan writing about a broken marriage by crafting conversations with empty unsaid feelings, cleverly letting the negative space in the story fill itself. Some of the stories are innocent, and some Tan unabashedly injects with detailed erotica. Tan’s thoughtful dive into varying sexualities and levels of feelings all employ the smallest crumbs of details.

Though Tan’s cover refers to “things” that are made and broken, “things” ranging from moments to relationships to dreams to curtain rings, what ultimately get broken in each story are the people. The brokenness is sometimes so heartbreaking and so tragic that it seems unimaginable. But Tan also brings out the duality of being broken, that people cannot be broken if they weren’t whole in the first place, and that thread of hope is what successfully grounds her stories.


—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22x