THE BOX, by Mandy-Suzanne Wong
Some novels start with the promise, What I’m about to tell you actually happened; others propose, Let’s play a game. “The Box” is among the latter.
From its opening pages Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s second novel presents itself as a puzzle. Where are we? Who is speaking? What on earth is going on? There’s something delicious about feeling our way through the informational void of the book’s beginning, a sort of horizon-less white space that mirrors the nameless, snowbound city where the action, if it can be called that, takes place.
The snow is the first thing we hear about. It won’t stop, but it is somehow falling at the exact same rate as it melts, leaving the city permanently blanketed though never buried. This meteorological weirdness, this state of perpetual winter, sets up an atmosphere somewhere between fairy tale and nightmare as the anonymous narrator unfolds their simple story of seeing someone drop an object in the snow and then following this person to return it to them. The object is a small white box, apparently made of woven paper strips and yet impossible to open. As the title of the book indicates, this strange little object is the thing to pay attention to.
Wong displays formidable skill in this disorienting first section, intriguing us with subtle but unmistakable humor, drawing us into the highly wrought maze of her novel and making it fun. The dialogue, when it comes, is contemporary and naturalistic, creating a wonderfully funny contrast with the strangely formal and ornate narrative voice.
There is a modernist flavor to Wong’s project — the snowbound city and the futility of the character’s struggle recalling Kafka’s “The Castle”; a dialogue set in a moldering junk shop is Beckettian in its bleak comedy. It’s hard to read the sentence, “Of chirp and chitter flutters like the tinkling ruckus of a restaurant from a distance elevated,” without thinking of Joyce. The puzzle of the novel is itself reminiscent of Borges. “The Box” is not an easy read, and it’s not trying to be; Wong isn’t afraid to make demands of the reader, who sometimes needs to jog to keep up.
Of course, the key to solving the puzzle, the thread that connects the sections of the book, is the titular box, which we glimpse as it passes through various hands and environments, turning up as part of an artwork in a fashionable gallery, an object of worship among a group of murderous teenagers, an accessory in a minor case of fraud. Determinedly sought and obsessed over by a number of shadowy characters, it hovers somewhere between metaphor, symbol and MacGuffin. What is it supposed to stand for?
Wong precludes any definitive answer. (Multiple references to Schrödinger’s cat make her point plain.) Whenever a character attempts to attribute a specific meaning to the box, to make it stand for anything in particular, the narrative swiftly disproves, muddies or discredits that meaning. It soon becomes clear that the novel in our hands is meant to be another unknowable box, an object that represents nothing other than itself, fascinating, mysterious and inscrutable. Like the box, “The Box” too is presented as “a reification of mystery,” as a faceless crowd member puts it, “an embodiment of the absolute unknown.”
Wong’s challenge is in sustaining this embodiment for nearly 250 pages. There’s suspense in seeing whether the author will pull it off that’s not unlike the experience of watching a tightrope walker. Despite the extraordinary control and wit of her writing, and the protean sprightliness of her thought, she doesn’t quite manage it in the end. The humor gives out about halfway through, and you miss it when it’s gone. The rather clunky satire of the fifth chapter, “Icon” — which forces the snow into a sort of Covid allegory — doesn’t quite measure up to the sly and ambiguous comedy of the earlier sections. (The preceding “Remainder,” told from the perspective of a migrant worker with a traumatic past and involving hotels called “La Blue Boite” and “htl-esc,” is skillfully done, though its place in the book is baffling — it was not entirely surprising to discover it was originally written as a stand-alone story.)
The thing about games is that they need to be fun, and the exhilarating enigma of the earlier sections is somewhat lost in the second half of the book, as if Wong loses sight of the task she’s set for herself of making her book its own kind of box — something that not only says, but is. As another modernist, T.S. Eliot, puts it in “Four Quartets”: “Only by the form, the pattern,/Can words or music reach/The stillness.” Though definitely impressive and often scintillating, this novel doesn’t quite maintain the form and pattern to reach this goal.
David Szalay is the author, most recently, of the novel “Turbulence.”
THE BOX | By Mandy-Suzanne Wong | 241 pp. | Graywolf Press | Paperback, $17