Wayward Lives and Paper Hearts: Review of The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
The Chosen and the Beautiful. By Nghi Vo. Tordotcom, June 6, 2021.
Jordan Baker has a gift for listening, for drawing out others’ secret truths like spun sugar, but rarely is she told a story with little more than paper and a pair of scissors. Sinuous, filigreed dragons and silken blossoms emerge with each skilled cut, unfurling histories she would know by heart if her childhood in Vietnam had not been cut short by a white missionary armed with more good intentions than actual understanding. But Jordan recognizes the magic that breathes life into these delicate paper creatures, has felt it shivering through her own fingers, and knows it to be her birthright—even if home is an empty word for a socialite who slips from one party to the next like a snapped string of pearls.
Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a dazzling reckoning with the fragile and beguiling fantasies we conjure to make sense of the past. It is also a (re)vision of The Great Gatsby, a mesmerizing, fearless unravelling of a text at the heart of the American literary canon, interrogating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age through the eyes of a character held at his narrative’s periphery. In Fitzgerald’s version, Jordan Baker is a “balancing girl” with a “bored haughty face,” chin raised in a show of self-sufficiency that resists all attempts to know her. But by a narrative sleight of hand that recognizes guarded hearts are often observant ones, Vo invites this paper girl to tell a well-known story from a long-neglected perspective: that of a queer woman of color in 1920s New York.
Vo’s Jordan—sardonic, sensual, and unsentimental—is a “charming oddity” in her white, well-heeled East Coast set. A Vietnamese adoptee who rubs shoulders with the city’s wealthiest, she flits between lovers of various genders, drinking each night to its lees and bracing herself with a practiced carelessness against casual bigotry. Jordan’s New York is not Daisy’s nor Nick’s: miscegenation laws are “applied like uneven powder” across the country, and the Manchester Act, reminiscent of the 1924 Immigration Act, threatens to restrict and repatriate “all unwanted unworthies from a long list of places.” She is, in other words, a perpetual guest—with Daisy as much as in America—and though she famously appreciates the intimacy of large parties, we feel the sting of Jordan’s quips more than we might reading Gatsby: when you exist “in a kind of borderland of acceptable and not, sometimes more on one side, sometimes more on another,” a room full of strangers can afford a thrill of imagined kinship for the lonely, and a momentary anonymity for the out-of-place.
For this reason, The Chosen and the Beautiful revels in the queerness Gatsby could only slip between its lines, bringing the reader into its haunts and lingering on its thrills, but as the name of the gay nightclub the Cendrillion, or Cinderella, suggests, its expression remains safest during a scant few starry hours. With the tightrope she walks, Jordan could be kin to the “promiscuous, reckless, wild, and wayward” young Black women whose everyday lives at the turn of the twentieth century are recovered in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, where we are reminded that “the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl.” Vo’s triumph is to refuse to let Jordan’s circumstances suppress her desire. “I hadn’t even reached the bottom of learning what I wanted,” she confesses early on, and one of the novel’s keenest pleasures is following her unabashed efforts to do so.
In turns ardent, possessive, suspicious, and sincere, Vo evokes desire in prose as shining and fluid as quicksilver. Jordan feels “a kind of Middle Western, old religious fervor,” for instance, in Nick’s kiss: “His people weren’t that far from the tent revivals that spoke of angels like spinning chariot wheels in the sky and demons under every apple tree, and he chased my pleasure like it might be his very own salvation.” More, perhaps, than Gatsby, Vo’s novel lingers on displacement as a distinctly American predicament, and its effect on the ways we are able to love. Jay Gatsby’s legendary longing is a “remorseless and relentless” thing that thinks itself pure, but Jordan’s feelings for Daisy and Nick—fragile, fierce, and with manifold contradictions—reflect the novel’s concern with finding intimacy in conditions of isolation.
Vo often shines brightest where Gatsby’s narrative shadow is at its least intrusive. Her novel infuses Fitzgerald’s tipsy, glittering spectacle with a touch of the fantastic, magic that emphasizes the veil-thin divide between clever illusions and cruel realities: rouge makes its wearers float “like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam”; silk shirts tumble and twist into birds, “sleeves stretching into long and graceful necks”; and blood-turned-liquor seals Faustian bargains. Memories of Jordan and Daisy’s childhood in Louisville not only richly flesh out the latter character, but contain one of the novel’s most riveting scenes, catalyzed by Jordan’s magic and Daisy’s ungovernable will . Memories, too, drive Jordan to Chinatown in search of answers about her past, and the magic she has inherited from faces she can’t quite remember.
Not unlike the accident that brings Gatsby crashing to a conclusion, The Chosen and the Beautiful races through its final act as if compelled to keep pace with Fitzgerald’s precedent where it has previously relished its freedom. Here, Vo’s adaptation almost feels constrained by its source material, and while Jordan is given the opportunity to triumph over certain pervasive, spectacled metaphors, the fateful recklessness of the characters around her at times threatens to derail her own poignant denouement. With this tension, The Chosen and the Beautiful encourages us to consider what it means to challenge traditional narratives and the institutions that canonize them. Vo’s novel affords a vital model by questioning not only the classic American voice, but the genre that enables it to speak for so many. Jordan’s final word, ringing with a momentum that outpaces Nick’s resigned beating against the current, glimmers with undeniable possibility.
Sam Botz is a writer, scholar, and reader. A Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, her research interests include eighteenth-century archives of feeling, speculative fictions, environmental justice, and doomed polar expeditions. She lives in Chicago with her cat, Moira, and her dear friend and cat-co-parent.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in March 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no prior relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor/Forge Books.