June 2010

Arts & Letters

‘The Family Law’ by Benjamin Law

By Linda Jaivin

Tolstoy was wrong: not all happy families are alike. As portrayed in this very funny collection of personal essays by Benjamin Law, the family Law has found a truly original and unusual brand of happiness. It’s one that – more or less cheerfully – allows for divorce, financial problems, warring siblings, cockroach infestations and a mother who is an uninhibited emotional exhibitionist.

We witness the author’s agony in coming out as a gay Chinese–Australian teen in a small town on the Sunshine Coast, as well as the lonely death of a grandmother in a Hong Kong nursing home. The Laws, when not busy hating, ignoring or being embarrassed by one another, share much love, and that’s what counts.

The magnetic centre of The Family Law is the author’s mother, Jenny. Prone to both malapropism and the release of way too much information, the irresistible Jenny has an earthy, southern-Chinese-peasant sensibility that does not resile from sending birthday text messages to her children recounting the pain of their birthing or elaborating on the effects of the same on her “vagina meat”.

She complains to her son that, on their wedding night, his father hadn’t engaged in enough “foul play”; when he tells her it’s “foreplay”, she figures it’s all much of a muchness. It’s hard to see how all five children did not turn out to be comedians.

Then there’s school: “Australian primary schools are hellmouths of violence and misbehaviour,” Law deadpans. He recounts taking part in an ‘Aboriginal’ pageant in primary school in which the children, none of whom were Aboriginal, sang Rolf Harris’ ‘Carra Barra Wirra Canna’ while wearing blackface: “As the tiniest boy in the group, I was given the role of a native infant.” This is such a Ricky Wong moment that it occurred to me Law might actually have been invented by Chris Lilley. He later has a classmate “so aggressively heterosexual and manly that he once shat on a toilet seat by mistake”.

This is not a book for the prim at heart. Jenny’s colourful take on the English language alone would make a late-night SBS programmer blush. If, like me, you enjoy offbeat humour and have a certain taste for the tasteless, however, you may find yourself at times almost barking with laughter.

For all its genuinely hilarious moments and the neurotic charm of the narration, though, there are some odd editorial calls in The Family Law. In the opening chapter, the author tries to wring laughs out of Jenny weeping over her mother’s death (“sudden gulps of air” like a “broken hotel vacuum cleaner”), and relates a you-had-to-be-there joke involving Hong Kong Disneyland, Minnie Mouse, his own sisters and the line “I was raaaaped!

My reaction as reader see-sawed between alienated and hostile; it took me another 50 pages or so to open up completely to Law’s humour. Yet, the same chapter would probably have worked fine later, once we’d gotten to know everyone: even in the family Law, foreplay doesn’t always have to be foul play.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

Cover: June 2010
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