Like all games, mahjong can be played with craft and cunning, with artistry and precision. Or it can be a mess. Says Auntie Lin, one of the many characters who play their parts in Amy Tan’s many-voiced novel The Joy Luck Club, “Chinese mah jong, you must play using your head, very tricky. You must watch what everybody else throws away and keep that in your head as well.” If you play otherwise, without skill or caring, she warns darkly, “You’re just watching people make mistakes.”
Mahjong is a game of symmetries, patterns, geometries. So is chess, another game that figures in the pages of The Joy Luck Club, which was first published in 1989 and whose structure resembles the classic Chinese game board, with four sides divided into four sections to spin out a story in sixteen parts, each populated by an immigrant mother who passes on knowledge from the home country to the daughters, keeping it safe for the future.
One of those mothers is present though absent, and she is the first we meet. Jing-Mei Woo is taking her place at the mahjong table of the Joy Luck Club, founded by her mother, Suyuan Woo, who has recently died, “killed,” her widower grumbles, “by her own thoughts.” The club’s members are immigrants who fled China in 1949, in the last days of the civil war, and who arrived in the Bay Area bewildered, having lost all. Suyuan “recognized the numbness in these women’s faces.” Providing the game and a place to play it turns out to have been just one of her many resourceful moves—which, as we learn, date back years to a land full of half-remembered secrets, not least of them the existence of a family from a previous marriage.
No marriage is easy, but for the “aunties” and their children in The Joy Luck Club, none is especially happy: Love scarcely figures, and no relationship is without its troubles. Less fraught is the matter of food, which figures prominently as well, for nothing quite soothes the exiled soul as much as a meal from home—unless, as one story relates, tears are an ingredient. But tears, of course, dot the pages of Tan’s novel, born of misunderstanding and mistreatment; they are part of the ancestral memory, if seen from afar in a happier but by no means perfect place. Recalls one woman, “I know what it is like to live your life like a dream. To listen and watch, to wake up and try to understand what has already happened.”
Amy Tan had been working as a technical writer when The Joy Luck Club appeared. To her surprise, it became a bestseller, and Tan was able to turn to her own writing full time, producing numerous novels, children’s stories, and a memoir. Her first book remains her best known, with interest recently revived by the success of the film Crazy Rich Asians, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. It remains a book that deserves attention today, too, a work of craft and cunning, artistry, and precision—and much good humor in the face of adversity as well.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.