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Drowning in America, Starving for China : THE JOY LUCK CLUB<i> by Amy Tan (G.P. Putnam’s Sons: $18.95; 277 pp.) </i>

<i> See's most recent novel is "Golden Days" (Fawcett). </i>

The only negative thing I could ever say about this book is that I’ll never again be able to read it for the first time. “The Joy Luck Club” is so powerful, so full of magic, that by the end of the second paragraph, your heart catches; by the end of the first page, tears blur your vision, and one-third of the way down on Page 26, you know you won’t be doing anything of importance until you have finished this novel.

The main narrative here is taken up by Jing-mei Woo, a first-generation American-Chinese woman whose whole tone is tuned to the fact that she is, essentially, lost. She’s swimming upstream in American culture, doing the best she can, but she’s gone through several jobs, she’s gotten into the habit of settling for less than she should, and her own Chinese mother appears to be bitterly disappointed in her. Then, her mother dies, and Jing-mei is asked by three old family friends to take her mother’s place at their mah-jongg table, at a social club they’ve been carrying on in San Francisco for the last 40 years.

Here is Jing-mei (who goes by the name of June, now), recording her first night as a bona-fide member: “The Joy Luck Aunties are all wearing slacks, bright print blouses, and different versions of sturdy walking shoes. We are all seated around the dining room table under a lamp that looks like a Spanish candelabra. Uncle George puts on his bifocals and starts the meeting by reading the minutes. ‘Our capital account is $24,825, or about $6,206 a couple, $3,103 a person. We sold Subaru for a loss at six and three quarters. We bought a hundred shares of Smith International at seven. Our thanks to Lindo and Tinn Jong for the goodies. The red bean soup was especially delicious. . . .’ ”

Not the stuff of high adventure. But the original Joy Luck Club was started in Chungking during the last of World War II by Jing-mei’s mother when she was a young widow, literally setting herself and her friends the task of creating joy and luck out of unimaginable catastrophe: “What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? or to choose our own happiness? . . . We decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the new year. Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky.”

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The reason that the men in the present Joy Luck Club buy stock now is so that every member can feel lucky and have some joy, because by this time it has become unacceptable to lose anything more. The four women who have consoled themselves in America for 40 years with friendship, mah-jongg and stories, have already lived lives that are, again, unimaginable. On top of all their other terrors and adversities, their pasts have been lost; as if these horrors have taken place not just in another country but on another planet. Their deepest wish is to pass their knowledge, their tales, on to their children, especially to their daughters, but those young women are undergoing a slow death of their own; drowning in American culture at the same time they starve for a past they can never fully understand.

The author leavens this Angst with Marx brothers humor, making you laugh, literally, even as you cry. What can you do with a Chinese couple who name their four boys Matthew, Mark, Luke and Bing? What can you tell a mother who thinks she’s getting “so-so security” from the government, or (as Jing-mei remembers her own mother deep in indignation about an irate neighbor who believes that she’s killed his cat) " ' . . . That man, he raise his hand like this, show me his ugly fist and call me worst Fukien landlady. I not from Fukien. Hunh! He know nothing!’ ”

But the misunderstandings don’t come merely from vagaries of language. “The Joy Luck Club” is about the way the past distances itself from the present as speedily as a disappearing star on a “Star Trek” rerun. It’s gone, gone, and yet the past holds the only keys to meaning in every life examined here. On her first night at the mah-jongg table, her mother’s friends revealed to Jing-mei that she has two half-sisters still in China, and that the Joy Luck ladies have saved money so that she, Jing-mei, can go home to tell them about their mother. “ ‘What can I tell them about my mother?’ ” Jing-mei blurts. “ ‘I don’t know anything . . . .’ ” But the book is dedicated by the author: “To my mother and the memory of her mother. You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.” What results from this stunningly devotional tour de force is an entrance into eight separate lives: four women whose “real” life occurred in China, in another world, in another mind; and four of their daughters, themselves grown women now. To say they are all products of conflicting value systems is heavy-handed inaccuracy, wimpy paraphrase.

Here, for instance, is Eurasian Lena St. Clair, Ying-ying’s daughter, translating her mother’s Chinese to her Caucasian father, after Ying-ying has given birth to her stillborn baby brother: Lena’s mother cries out " . . . Then this baby, maybe he heard us, his large head seemed to fill with hot air and rise up from the table. The head turned to one side. . . . It looked right through me. I knew he could see everything inside me. How I had given no thought to killing my other son!” Lena translates to her sad, ignorant father: " . . . She thinks we must all think very hard about having another baby. . . . And she thinks we should leave now and go have dinner.’ ”

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And, 15 or so years later, it seems inevitable that Lena should end up with a Hungarian “rice husband” (so named for all those Chinese “rice Christians” who hung around missionaries in China simply so they could get a square meal). In the name of feminism and right thinking, this husband is taking Lena for every cent she’s got, but she’s so demoralized, so “out of balance” in the Chinese sense, that she can’t do a thing about it.

If, so far, I haven’t done justice to this book, that’s because you can’t turn a poem into prose, or explain magic, without destroying the magic, destroying the poem. One can only mention scraps: The four mothers come from different parts of (and times in) China, so for instance, the author allows us to see one peasant mother, Lindo Jong, who remembers she was not worthless: “I looked and smelled like a precious bun cake, sweet with a good clean color.” Lindo, betrothed at 2, wangles her way out of a horrible marriage with courage and wit. But another mah-jongg lady, An-mei, has watched her own mother lose her honor and “face” by becoming third concubine to a hideous merchant in Tiensing. An-mei’s mother times her suicide in such a way that her ghost can come back to haunt the house on New Year’s Day, thus insuring a good future for her child, who, in turn, comes to America, has a daughter, Rose, who somehow rustles up the courage to defy an American husband who’s trying to swindle her. . . .

But the stories of the four mothers, the four daughters, are not really the point here. “The Joy Luck Club” is dazzling because of the worlds it gives us: When Lindo, old now, says, “ ‘Feel my bracelets. They must be 24 carats, pure inside and out,’ ” if you have any sense at all, you let yourself be led down a garden path into a whole other place; where a little girl in San Francisco becomes chess champion at age 6 by using her mother’s “invisible strength,” where a woman who comes from the richest family in Wushi (with boxes of jade in every room holding just the right amount of cigarettes) is given the name of Betty by her dopey American husband, who doesn’t know she’s already “dead,” a “ghost. . . .”

At the perimeters of all these stories are all the men, buying and trading in this Mountain of Gold, selling Subaru at a loss, each one of them with his own story that has yet to be told. “The Joy Luck Club” has the disconcerting effect of making you look at everyone in your own life with the--however fleeting--knowledge that they are locked in the spaceships of their own amazing stories. Only magicians of language like Amy Tan hold the imaginative keys to the isolating capsules. Which is why we have novels and novelists in the first place.


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