Geoff Miles, a senior lecturer in Shakespeare and YA, reviews New Zealand writer Chloe Gong’s bestselling duology These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends.
You could make a case that Shakespeare, on top of all his other literary innovations, was the inventor of young adult fiction. YA, as its aficionados matily abbreviate it, is a fairly recent genre, introduced by publishers and booksellers in the 1960s to cater to the rising teenage market; SE Hinton’s The Outsiders is sometimes called the first YA novel, others trace the origin of the genre back to The Catcher in the Rye.
But Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the mid 1590s (apart from being a play rather than a novel) has the germ of the genre: a story with teenage protagonists, their passion and idealism pitted against a corrupt and dystopian adult society. Abandoning the harsh moralism of his source, Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, which presented the story as an awful warning against “the lusts of wanton flesh”, Shakespeare made his lovers sympathetic and heroic figures whose tragic deaths have the potential to redeem their world.
For obvious reasons, Romeo and Juliet has always been popular with young audiences. Two great 20th century films captured its mass appeal – Franco Zeffirelli’s lushly romantic 1968 version, which for my generation summed up the “make love not war” idealism of the 60s, and Baz Luhrmann’s edgier 1996 version, which did the same for millennials. Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays it has become a modern myth, endlessly adapted, imitated, and parodied – from the classic 1957 musical West Side Story, which turned the rival families into rival New York street gangs, to the 2013 zombie romcom Warm Bodies or the garden-gnome cartoon Gnomeo and Juliet. It is endlessly reinterpreted for new contemporary relevance, as in this year’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe in London that quixotically set out to “challenge the idea that the play is a love story”, and interspersed its scenes with chilling statistics about teenage mental health, suicide and sexual abuse.
So it’s not surprising that Chinese-born New Zealand author Chloe Gong (22) has chosen the story of Romeo and Juliet as the framework for her debut YA duology. Nor is it entirely unexpected that the books are an international hit. These Violent Delights, launched late last year, has now spent a total of six months on the New York Times bestseller lists – and last month Our Violent Ends debuted at number one.
The books are set in Shanghai, Gong’s birthplace, in the 1920s. Her protagonists are Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, heirs to the two rival criminal families battling for control of the city – the old-established Scarlet Gang, run by the Cais, and the upstart White Flowers, run by the Russian Montagovs. The gangland feud takes place in a city already under strain from the expanding enclaves of rival western colonialists (British, American, French) and the power struggle between Chinese nationalists and communists. For good measure, Gong tops up the chaos with a fantasy/horror plot involving a monster haunting the Huangpu River and an inexplicable plague of madness that is causing its victims to tear out their own throats.
Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge is that these books are not Great Literature. The plot is melodramatic and improbable, the style overheated. A description of Shanghai on the first page of These Violent Delights sets the tone:
This place hums to the tune of debauchery. This city is filthy and deep in the thrall of unending sin, so saturated with the kiss of decadence that the sky threatens to buckle and crush all those living vivaciously beneath it in punishment.
The dialogue shifts uncomfortably between teenage colloquialism and opera libretto. Gong can strike out a vivid and powerful metaphor, but at times the metaphors proliferate and clash like the warring factions of the novel. For instance, Roma fears Lord Montagov’s displeasure, “imagining the thunderous disappointment that would pockmark his father’s every word”. Pockmark is brilliantly imaginative, thunderous disappointment a little clichéd but perfectly serviceable, but the two images in one sentence crash and burn horribly. At other times an effective sentence falls into bathos through clumsy over-explanatoriness: “If [Tyler Cai] could, he would demand the globe turn in the other direction simply because he thought it was a more efficient way to turn, no matter how unrealistic.”
None of this, perhaps, matters very much. As its bestseller status demonstrates, the duology’s propulsive plot, passionately serious characters and vivid sense of place and atmosphere are sufficient to drive it over all the stylistic potholes. It’s worth recalling that Shakespeare himself was criticised for improbable plots and overwriting; his contemporary Ben Jonson grumbled that “he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary that he be stopped”, while John Dryden a century later complained that his style was “so pestered with figurative expressions that it is as affected as it is obscure”.
The duology is a young writer’s work, as Romeo and Juliet was a young writer’s play, and its extravagances are not out of sympathy with Shakespeare’s own. Like the original play it works on a mythic rather than a realist level, and as Philip Ball recently argued in The Modern Myths, successful mythic texts need not be great literature – in fact, roughnesses and gaps in the literary texture can actually leave room for the mythic idea to take hold of the imagination.
So what does Gong do with the story of Romeo and Juliet? The bones of Shakespeare’s play are clearly visible; many of the characters have obvious Shakespearean counterparts (Tyler/Tybalt, Marshall/Mercutio, Benedikt/Benvolio, Paul/Paris, Lourens/Friar Lawrence), though Gong evens up the play’s gender balance with some important new female characters (Juliette’s cousins Rosalind and Kathleen, Roma’s kid sister Alisa). A few famous lines from the play make covert appearances. But the differences between play and novels are more striking.
Most obviously, this is a darker story. Shakespeare’s characters are young and innocent: Juliet (notoriously) is only 13, Romeo apparently not much older. Gong’s Juliette and Roma are 19, and hardened. We quickly learn their back story: when they were 15 they had a love affair that ended in betrayal when, in a desperate plot conceived by Roma, the Montagovs bombed the Cai household and killed Juliette’s beloved Nurse. (It’s a sign of the darker world we are in that the most comic character of Shakespeare’s play is dead before the novels begin.) Now, four years later, Juliette has returned from exile in America, trained as an operative for her family – “Killer. Violent. Ruthless.” – and is unwillingly thrust again into contact with the man who broke her heart. Whereas Shakespeare’s young lovers are unequivocally committed to each other from the moment their eyes meet, Gong’s ex-lovers spend most of the two novels in a cautious, self-tormenting emotional dance, caught between their feelings for each other and their ingrained suspicion, resentment and fear that falling in love again will spell ruin both for themselves and their city.
That city is a major character in the novels, far more present than Shakespeare’s Verona. Gong vividly creates the seedy-picturesque details of 1920s Shanghai, “ugly but glorious”: the street architecture like the creation of “a lazy artist” in its mix of elegance and clutter, the burlesque club with its “strange sodden smell” and five different kinds of opium trodden into the floor, the men outside the brothel “leering like it was their second job”, the Cai mansion with its discordant mix of traditional Chinese and modern glamour, and the crazy jigsaw of the Montagov headquarters created by knocking together a row of tenement buildings.
All the time, though, we are made aware of Shanghai as “a foreign city in its own country”, gradually, cancerously being taken over by western colonial influence. In this postcolonial dystopia, Gong’s young lovers cannot be as apolitical as Shakespeare’s; they bear some of the political burden of a Prince Hal or a Prince Hamlet. Juliette feels “the weight of Shanghai” as “a steel crown nailed to her head”, torn between her personal feelings and her public responsibility. “They couldn’t deny their upbringing as the heirs of Shanghai, as two pieces of a throne. What was left of their love if they rejected that?”
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This political, postcolonial strand in the novels intertwines with the quintessential YA theme of finding identity. All YA novels, perhaps, are fundamentally about the adolescent protagonists discovering or deciding who they are. In Gong’s duology those decisions are tied up with questions of cultural heritage. Both the main characters have multiple names – Juliette Cai or Cai Junli, Roma Montagov or Roman Nikolaevich Montagov – “what’s in a name?” Questions of identity are inextricable from questions of language, and some of Gong’s most vivid passages are on language: the name Cai, “tsai, like the sound of a match being struck”; the Scarlet Gang as “hóng bāng, the two syllables twirled together in a quick snap of vowels. Such a name curled in and out through Scarlet tongues like a whip”. Juliette finds that her mother speaking in Shanghainese conveys “a feeling of calm” however emotional the topic: “That was what it meant to speak your native tongue, Juliette supposed. Juliette wasn’t really sure what her native tongue was.”
Other characters have equally complex identities: Korean Marshall Soo’s true parentage and Rosalind’s true political allegiance only emerge late in the second novel, and Kathleen, alias Celia, is a trans woman, a fact Gong conveys with unusual subtlety in a couple of blink-and-you-miss-them allusions. All these identity issues, along with the text’s more blatant whodunit mysteries – who is the monster? Who is “the Larkspur”? – reflect and refract the larger political question: what is Shanghai, and what will it become?
Perhaps the most striking thing about Gong’s dealings with Shakespeare is her tendency to literalise his metaphors. Shakespeare’s Mercutio, caught in the crossfire of the Capulet-Montague feud, dies with a curse: “A plague on both your houses!” His counterpart Marshall, in a similar situation, does not curse but grimly declares, “You are all cursed, Montagovs and Cais alike. There’s a plague on both your damn houses.” The gothic horror subplot of the novels – the monster lurking in the river, the plague and the desperate search for a vaccine, the madness that makes people tear out their own throats – provides almost explicit metaphors for the “plague” of internecine violence that that is tearing apart the rival families and their city. The visceral imagery of bodies torn apart (a very Shakespearean image) is reflected in the novels’ treatment not just of violence but also of love: Juliet imagines reaching into her own chest “and tearing out whatever was weighing her down: the feeling of tenderness blossoming as physical flowers in her lungs, her relentless love curling in and out of her rib cage like climbing vines”. It’s at this moment that Juliette literally quotes Friar Lawrence’s lines from which Gong has taken both her titles and her epigraph:
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
It’s not until the end of the duology that we realise how precisely those lines anticipate the end of the love story. It’s a lovely example of how these sometimes ungainly but intermittently brilliant novels take Shakespeare’s YA romance and turn it up to 11.