The Family Law by Benjamin Law

Once upon a time I prided myself on being at the very cutting edge of trends. If I missed a movie's premier I wouldn't go and see it at all. If you told me a piece of gossip I'd heard it a month ago, or had started it in the first place. My finger was on the proverbial pulse, and don't ask where my other hand was. Alas, looming middle aged finds me increasingly fallen behind the times. Now I am that quaint oldie who buys the TV series on DVD after everyone else watched it as it screened, on downloads. Just like I remember my mother doing, I hear a halfway good "new" song and I say to anyone who'll listen, "Oooh, I like this one!" and then do an embarrassing kind of shuffle with my shoulders, a distant muscle memory of dancing.
But worst of all is my complete inability to keep up with the latest books. I was once, gentle reader, the type of person who was inundated with free books. If you were the hipster reading this-week's grooviest new title I would have sneered at you, recalling with relish having read the publisher's advance proof copy three months before. But no longer - now I am a humble consumer, once again becoming aware of fabulous things several weeks (at the earliest) after the horse has thoroughly bolted.
And so it is that I have only now read Benjamin Law's enchanting little memoir about being a pimpled, gay, Chinese teenager with braces in Queensland in the 1990s. I was always going to love this book, not least because (excepting the Chinese part, and the pimples, and the braces - oh, and replace 1990s with 1980s) it is largely describing my own awkward adolescence. I identified like crazy,which would probably make the author squirm, given his youth, beauty and hispter-ness.
The Family Law has been a phenomenal Australian publishing success, and deservedly so. It is a unique piece of storytelling, and Law's is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and mostly original voice. Gazing into my crystal ball I see a long and illustrious career ahead of him (not that he hasn't had a fabulous one already), and look forward to the amazing books I know he will write in the future.
Built up out of brief vignettes and short chapters, The Family Law recounts the author's own childhood and youth. What makes it so wonderful is that, for all its promise of Amy Tan-esque Chinese quaintness and exotica, it is much more a completely recognisable memoir of being an outcast boy in Queensland. Law creates a wonderfully nostalgic, and slightly unseemly, memory of South-East Queensland, with its bizarre and often sad tourist traps, amusement parks and slightly OTT Chinese restaurants (the latter frequently owned and operated by Law's own father, a beautifully written character in these stories). Law's awkwardly populous family (five children illegally crammed into a family sedan, along with Gran) are the book's main characters, and the star of the show is his fragile, slightly neurotic and wonderfully naughty mother, who uses the C-word with abandon and is nervous about cleaning. I kind of developed a crush on his older brother, a sporty, butch and gruff counter to the bookish and sensitive Benjamin, and the reader discovers an awful lot about his mother's and sisters' genitalia. All in a good way, mind.
There's no use pretending that this book is not in the same mould as Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris, and I don't think Law would mind me saying that. In fact, I am intrigued by the emergence of the queer comic essayist as a new (and popularly acclaimed) figure in English literature. And while Law's stories lack some of the world-weariness (and sometimes the sophistication) of his older American peers, they are filled with charm, honesty and a cruelly astute eye for the failings of modern family - Chinese, Australian or otherwise.
Law's father, himself a fragile and lonely fatherless child working like a madman in his adopted country, scans his Christmas presents for the tell-tale "Made In China" stamp, thrusting this sign of failure before his perplexed children:

"We were stupid to have wasted money on him like this,and he'd ask us to immediately retrieve the receipt so we could claim back the cash and buy something for ourselves - something practical like a leather watch or an Akubra hat; something made in Australia."

The Family Law is an exercise in memoir that I enjoyed immensely. Funny, fascinating, and to a large and deceptively complex degree a commentary on race, sexuality and the tenuous grip of culture, high and low, I honestly can't imagine anyone who wouldn't enjoy it. At one level it is a rollicking, page-turning comedy; and at another a brittle and challenging discourse on loneliness, identity and anxiety. I may have come to it slightly late, but I have loved it and want you all to read it.


Popular Posts