BackArts & Culture » Literature » Loạt Soạt » 'The Chosen and the Beautiful,' a Queer, Magical, Asian American Gatsby Remix

'The Chosen and the Beautiful,' a Queer, Magical, Asian American Gatsby Remix

The Great Gatsby, but with an Asian American narrator and some of the characters are queer and there’s magic.” This is a fine elevator explanation for The Chosen and the Beautiful.

The way one approaches Nghi Vo’s 2021 novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, will depend largely on one’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That famous 1925 novel occupies a prominent place in the American literary canon with generations of Americans reading it during high school, while the 2013 film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio brought it beyond English class curricula to a more global audience. The Chosen and the Beautiful keeps the core plot, scenes and characters intact, but selects Jordan Baker, a minor character in the original, to serve as the narrator, while giving her a new identity as an adopted/kidnapped Vietnamese queer woman. Vo has also filled their world with powerful magic as well.

“I am deeply in love with The Great Gatsby as a novel, for all of its problems,” Vo explained in an online discussion. It was her great appreciation for the book that led her to pen her re-mix, noting that doing so “allows me to not only comment on the world of the novel itself, it allows me to comment on the world that Fitzgerald himself is living in and the assumptions he makes.”

Vo goes on to joke that one should read The Great Gatsby before The Chosen and the Beautiful so they can identify the ways she is being “mean” to the original. But I am not certain one needs to know the original to enjoy her version. I haven’t read it for nearly two decades, and thus only remember its broad strokes, though allusions to the green light at the end of the dock and “Gatsby” as shorthand for a mysterious devil-may-care individual have helped keep its memory alive. Recognizing how scenes, motivations or details have been shifted or embellished by Vo’s hand certainly adds an extra joy to the experience, but it's not the only one.

The beau monde with a queer touch

When reading The Chosen and the Beautiful, what first astounds, beyond alterations to the original, is the glamor and extravagance of the time period, or as Vo explained in the interview: “The whole appeal is how big it is.” This grandeur can be seen in the opulence stuffed into each scene’s details. The absurdity of wealth enjoyed by the characters is on display in something as simple as undergarment storage: “The white drawers built into the far wall opened to reveal layers and layers of underwear, camisoles, stockings, jeweled garters, French knickers with real lace insets, all stacked neatly between pale sheets of perfumed tissue paper, all as tempting as marzipan on Christmas.”

In addition to retaining the core story of The Great Gatsby, Vo mimics some of Fitzgerald’s writing style, particularly his use of complex, compound sentences that hinge on metaphors and similes to provide descriptions. This book’s very first sentence reveals this technique, offering a glimpse of the content to follow: “The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down.”

While The Greats Gatsby approaches sex with a coy nod and a wink, The Chosen and the Beautiful relishes in offering full, orgasm-filled details.

Vo’s descriptions do deviate from Fitzgerald’s in significant ways, however. Specifically, while The Greats Gatsby approaches sex with a coy nod and a wink, The Chosen and the Beautiful relishes in offering full, orgasm-filled details. And most significantly, she doesn’t restrict the characters to heterosexual encounters. Depicting or alluding to Jordan, Gatsby, Daisy and others engaging in graphic homosexual sex scenes and entanglements is not as outlandish as it may sound, however. There have long been interpretations that Nick was romantically in love with Gatsby in the original. Rumors of Fitzgerald’s own life have been cited as evidence, especially considering his frequent reliance on biographical details to build his fiction around. But Vo, who self-identifies as queer, forefronts it and removes all ambiguity. None of the characters seem to grapple with the concepts of gender identity or norms, however, as they adhere to the more strict conventions of the day, with sexual and emotional intimacy seemingly untethered from traditional gender roles. If same-sex marriage were legal and accepted in their world, one wonders how differently the story might go.

The sexual freedom that the characters experience does force one back to the original novel’s overarching theme of privilege. The aspect of queerness adds another facet of freedom and indulgence afforded to the wealthy of the 1920s. In the same way the characters can savor foods, fabrics and travel without having to worry about money or judgment, they can pursue whatever sexual or romantic relationships they would like without concern for the social stigmas or discriminations that certainly existed for average Americans 100 years ago. Powerful parallels can certainly be made to the way modern LGBTQ experiences are not equal across race, class, religion and nationality.

The girl from Tonkin

In the novel’s very white, upper-class New York world, Jordan’s race, more than her sexuality, makes her an outsider and some of her experiences mirror those of contemporary Asian Americans. Early in the book, she recounts the familiar situation of being asked where she is from; no really from. And while not dwelling on it, Vo does give readers enough details about her “adoption” by a wealthy white woman from “Tonkin” to infer she may not have been as much adopted as kidnapped, a nod to some dark truths about the legacies of America’s white-savior complex when it comes to raising babies of color from abroad. Jordan is able to adjust to this situation well, however, and use it to her advantage as much as possible, admitting “I was clever enough to know that it was my exotic looks and faintly tragic history that made me such an attractive curiosity, and I was not yet clever enough to mind when they prodded at my differences for a conversation piece at dinner.”

Jordan’s wealth again makes her an anomaly, however, when it comes to race. Even in the 1920s, New York was diverse and Chinatown, in particular, was home to others whom Jordan physically resembles. She avoids going there and associating with the individuals who call it home because “In truth, I felt less special in Chinatown, and that made me dislike it.” Still, Jordan does have several interactions with other Asians, particularly a group of Vietnamese circus performers who are brought in to entertain at Gatsby’s extravagant parties. The differences between them are revealed via Vo’s invention of the Manchester Act. Passing at the book’s conclusion, it will force those not born in America to leave. This, however, does not pose as great a problem for Jordan as it does for the circus performers, she is from a different class, after all. As her aunt emphasizes: “You’re safe, you know. … You’re a Baker. No one would question that.”

The book invites many interesting conversations about the need to decolonize literature, the roles of canons in (re)writing history, feminism, sexuality, race, class, adoption — and the ways in which these complex subjects intersect.

Beyond their appearances, Jordan shares with the Vietnamese characters an ability to cut paper into perfectly real and complete humans and animals. The ability to do so constitutes the most significant way in which the book’s magical elements impact the plot. Coming without explanation, readers are expected to accept enchantments, imps, spells and transfigurations as part of the world in the same way that the characters do. Thus, magic appears in mundane ways, such as characters drinking “demoniac,” an intoxicating beverage made with demon blood; party attendees transforming into fish-like creatures when swimming in Gatsby’s pool and ghosts that share gossip and judgemental comments. Much of the magic functions as glitter tossed over the already gaudy landscape without advancing the plot or adding to the characterizations. With the exception of an important reveal at the end, one may conclude that by introducing magic and thus untethering the tale from the real world, Vo has removed some of the book’s power to comment on its important themes.

Even with fantasy creeping across its margins, this book invites many interesting conversations about the need to decolonize literature, the roles of canons in (re)writing history, feminism, sexuality, race, class, adoption — and the ways in which these complex subjects intersect. But it can also be a fun book filled with extravagant excess and unnecessary embellishment best savored with a pull of demoniac straight from the bottle.

Related Articles

Paul Christiansen

in Loạt Soạt

'Chronicles of a Village' Is an Avant-Garde Deconstruction of the Familiar Rural Vietnam

How would you tell the story of your birth soil?

Paul Christiansen

in Loạt Soạt

A Memoir Ruminates on Saigon in the Now and via Childhood Memories

Born in Saigon in 1977, Tuan Phan and his parents left for America via boat in 1986. Remembering Water includes depictions of the voyage including lengthy stops in refugee camps followed by acclimatio...

in Trích or Triết

In Xuân Diệu's Tender Poetry, a Reminder to Love Honestly and Courageously

“Tenderly, fondly, Xuân Diệu held on to my wrist, caressing it up and down. Our eyes locked in affection…Xuân Diệu loved me.”

Paul Christiansen

in Loạt Soạt

Saigoneer Bookshelf: Ocean Vuong Asks Questions in 'Time Is a Mother'

Fame and poetry rarely go together.

Paul Christiansen

in Loạt Soạt

Bảo Ninh's English-Language Return and the Magic of Mundane Moments

Of all 20th-century Vietnamese authors whose works were translated into English, none have received more high-profile attention than Bảo Ninh for his wartime novel Nỗi buồn chiến tranh (The ...

Paul Christiansen

in Loạt Soạt

The Fraught Human-Earth Dynamics in 'Revenge of Gaia,' a Collection of Vietnamese Eco-Fiction

Stories focusing on the natural world and humanity’s relationships with the environment existed before the term eco-literature became popular in the west in the 1970s, but since its coinage, writers a...

Partner Content