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The story of Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins for whom the term was coined, is one everyone seems to know. And yet, how much does any of us really know about them?
Darin Strauss, homesick from work and channel-surfing, happened upon Oprah when she was doing a show on conjoined twin girls. As the two jumped up and said in perfect harmony, "We're a big girl now," Strauss was struck by the mystery of that one statement and thus began a three-year journey into the lives of the Siamese twins that would become Chang and Eng. Written from Eng's point of view, Strauss sought to humanize the struggle of the twins, and in doing so, has brought forth a beautifully imagined story, after which no reader will be able to think of them again as mere biological oddities or freaks in a sideshow.
But aside from detailing their lives, what Strauss does best in this debut historical novel is to separate the twins; with magnificent psychological insight, he does what no one else has dared, giving them separate identities, never to be blurred again. (Spring 2000 Selection)
The Barnes & Noble Review
They share a stomach and other organs and, by necessity, a fate. In Chang and Eng, first novelist Darin Strauss performs the surgery no doctor could undertake, granting these famous Siamese twins a measure of solitude and the distinctly separate lives they could never know. From the cramped Mekong River houseboat where they were born to the crowded bedroom where, with their wives, the twins conceived 21 children, Strauss takes Chang and Eng out of the freak-show spotlight to glimpse the passionate longings and ironic hopes burning in the conjoined breasts of two extraordinary brothers.
"Mekong Fishermen stay abreast of change," says the twins' father. "Rivermen's judgment helps one to make the appropriate decisions at the appropriate moment and diminish the influence of fate." This is the motto by which Eng, the taller and "right side" of the twins, attempts to guide himself and his brother through a life that is as unpredictable as it is unforgiving. Chang and Eng's saga begins in 1811, on a meager floating home on the Mekong River in Siam. They pass their early years under the protection of their loving mother and the guidance of a father who teaches them his "twin passions"fishing and a fearsome Gung-Fu, adapted to accommodate their double form. Their bodies are completely formed, attached at the chest by a band of ligament and flesh that, in childhood, requires them to remain face-to-face but in later years grows to to allow them to walk side by side, each with an arm around the other's shoulder. As rumors spread of the fabled "Double-Boy," Chang and Eng are plagued by primitive doctors who wish to separate them (something Eng desires desperately, although it would surely kill them both) and terrorized by other children. Eventually, word of their existence reaches as far as the king of Siam, who believes them to be a bad omen and orders that they be captured and brought to Bangkok to be destroyed.
Fortunately for the anomalous pair, the king finds them entertaining and instead uses them to impress the emperor of Cochin China. Thus, at the age of seven, they begin the journey that will lead them to America, where they achieve a modest fame (becoming the attraction for which the term "Siamese Twins" was coined) and are courted (unsuccessfully) by P. T. Barnum, who offers to establish them as a sideshow in his circus.
Strauss's ambitious novel not only explores the dualities that exist within an individual but also the ironies that are implicit when two individuals are physically joined. In alternating chapters, Chang and Eng reveal how they became famous as a human spectacle, as well as the later and in many ways more fascinating part of their lives, when they meet and marry Adelaide and Sarah Yates. This paired narrative describes how the twins strive to live lives they had believed impossiblethat of married family men, farmers sharing a domestic life in North Carolina. The two stories evolve at an even pace, each with its own timeline, so the leaps back and forth between their early and later lives are not disruptive. Rather, the two story lines motivate each other, revealing not only the impossibly sad longings for normalcy in a life as a public curiosity but also a candid look at the curiosities of their marriages and theirquite literallytangled love lives.
Although Chang and Eng is extensively researched, Strauss makes wise and gentle use of the biographical record, giving the characters and their fictionalized private lives precedence over the historical gaps or fabled accounts that could constrain the telling. From mutant boys of the Mekong River to the playthings of the king of Siam, curiosities shanghaied from their homeland by opportunistic businessmen to slaveholding North Carolina planters at the dawn of the Civil War, Chang and Eng are treated as characters and not as subjects, their fates impossible to predict. Although Eng's lifelong desire to be alonesevered from his brotherrobs both their lives of a certain level of contentment, his fate is ultimately one of separation. At the age of 63, he awakens to find that his brother is dead and knows that his own death is imminent. How he copes with finally getting his wish proves the truth of his father's adage.
Chang and Eng's struggle to live as individuals in a body the world saw as a single, nonhuman creature is nothing short of heartbreaking. But in Strauss's story, the "creature" dissolves, allowing us to experience in Chang and Eng's lives our own conflicted needs and hopes and to see that their tale is, against all odds, a profoundly human one.
In his stunning debut. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. This dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expose. The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish to be seen as ordinary." -April 10, 2000
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "extraordinarily creative, imaginative and disturbing" first novel offers an "intimate and revealing portrait" of Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins for whom the term was coined. Following the twins from poverty to wealth, hopeless solitude to boundless love, it reveals the longings and humanity of two remarkable human beings. "A poignant exploration of humanity and of the bond between siblings."
Astonishing...dazzling...Strauss proves himself to a be a writer of great imaginative gifts...a risky, ambitious and beautifully realized novel.
New York Times Book Review
Humor...humanity...aching sadness...a story of heroic longing.
Los Angeles Times
Strauss elevates Chang and Eng's story far beyond the sideshow...a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.
An ambitious, assured first novel...Strauss imagines these men in full. They are given voice, their fears, hopes, and dreams made vital...memorable.
A nuanced...affecting portrait... . Evident is the author's sympathy for his characters and his ability to convey the brothers' enduring love for each other. The New York Times
As lyrical as it is daring.
New York Newsday
An effortlessly original, deeply human portrait.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalizes the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins are joined together at the chest by a seven-inch-long ligament that contains a part of their stomach, the only organ they share. Apart from this band of flesh, they are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River. They are soon the object of curiosity, condemned to death when they are six years old by Siam's superstitious King Rama, who then changes his mind and exploits them as freaks. An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily (which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence) and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "`They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act (displayed in a cage) in the U.S. and abroad, become aware of the political tumult preceding the Civil War, and marry sisters in North Carolina and father 21 children between them--yet this dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expos . The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary. Agent, John Hodgman. (June) FYI: Strauss was featured in "A Budding Crop of First Fiction" (PW, Jan. 10). Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Chang and Eng remain the most famous conjoined twins in history--the phrase "Siamese twins" was coined in reference to them--but this work is most definitely a work of fiction. First novelist Strauss tells their story through the eyes of an aging Eng, who shares his petty grievances with the reader but rarely speaks with his brother. The "distance" between the twins is at first intriguing, but one comes to crave more details about the relationship, and in the end nothing is made of the theoretical bond between the lead characters. The plot takes us from their childhood in Siam through their married lives, but P.T. Barnum, who made them wealthy and famous, is largely absent from the book. Strauss instead seems preoccupied with the physical logistics of their sex lives and endless conjectural detail. Whether the subject of a given incident in their individual marriages or a moneymaking tour, the author's extrapolations of actual events are often less interesting than the facts themselves, and one senses the subject would have been better handled if the author had created his own characters. Ultimately, Strauss is not up to the task of a historical novel in the style of E.L. Doctorow. Not recommended.--Douglas McClemont, New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Los Angeles Times
Strauss elevates Chang and Eng's story far beyond the sideshow, making this a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.
By homing in on the basic humanity of the twins'
story and working it with such sympathy, Strauss
manages to move Chang and Eng from the
sideshow stage, placing them at the center of a
story of heroic longing . . .Strauss's novel -- its humor, its humanity, its aching sadness -- makes for
another fine memorial.
The New York Times Book Review
Chang and Eng imaginatively projects us into a prison of a body so
tangible that we come away with a sense of sideshow curiosities satisfied
and a deeper understanding of the perversities of human affection.
The Village Voice
The New Yorker
Telling their story from Eng's point of view, Strauss's novel is as lyrical as it is daring, charting the brother's fantastic journey...
An imposingly original first novel that focuses on unique historical figures: the eponymous Siamese twin brothers (1811-74) who endured opprobrium and despair, became international celebrities, married two American sisters, and fathered 21 children between them. Their amazing story is told by Eng, the more introspective and articulate of the brothers (who are joined at the chest by a fleshy ligament that gradually expands to permit them to rest side by side rather than facing). Eng's narrative, which begins with `the event I have feared since we were a child,` consists of two extended parallel stories: that of the twins' childhood on a houseboat on the Mekong River, appropriation by the epicurean King of Siam, at whose court they are educated and indulged, and their career as traveling `freaks` in America (where showman P.T. Barnum covets their services) and abroad; and that of their adult life in antebellum North Carolina, where they marry the aforementioned (Yates) sisters, prosper as hog farmers and slave owners, and eventually `separate` emotionally, as the ingenuous Chang sinks into alcoholism and Eng must wrestle with both his brother's degradation and his own guilty lust for his brother's wife. In harrowing detail, Strauss has imagined the physical adjustments required of the twins to perform even the simplest quotidian tasks, as well as the psychic strain their `monstrous` condition creates, and he explores with cool precision the equally crippling temperamental contrasts between Chang's ebullient naiveté and Eng's increasing capacity for deceit and emotional coldness. Occasionally the author shows his hand too plainly (for example, when Eng observes that `Thebirth of ourchildren intersected with an odd time for America`). Nonetheless, he presents with impressive delicacy and restraint the unavoidable felt connection between the American Civil War and the brothers' own simultaneously united and divided state. Admirably researched, continuously absorbing, and very moving indeed.
From the Publisher
“Stunning.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Richly imagined...a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.”Los Angeles Times
“Chang and Eng rocks with twisted passion, wickedly astute ruminations and a sly and powerful wit.”James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential
Read an Excerpt
When First We Met
Monday, December 10, 1842
Chang-Eng," the children chanted. "Mutant, mutant."
Now and then the little innocents sprang from the dust cloud chasing our carriage to cry my name and Chang's. The path we traveled cut through a droughty careworn field, and to either side of us a fast-passing scene of blond grass and dead milkweed thirsted under the burnt sky of sunset. My ear tingled with the nearness of my brother, who picked lint off of my shoulder and knew not to bump my head as he did so. His dark eyes showed little reflections of me. I was thirty-one. My life was about to begin: I was entering North Carolina.
My brother and I did not know that love was soon to deliver us. But twenty-one children and three decades later, how obvious it seems that everything to follow was a consequence of that evening. When you know you are dying, self-deceptions fly from your bedside like embers off a bonfire. Alone in the dark with a final chance to bind together circumstances that have made you a peasant who sells duck eggs on the Mekong one day and the South's most famous temperance advocate the next, you see a curtain open onto the landmark moments of your past.
When Chang and I arrived in North Carolina, we were coming to the end of yet another tour, exhibiting the bond that the public could not see without assuming we two were so very different from everybody else.
The halfwit we'd hired drove at a quick pace. And now, jounced inside a rickety carriage that had the legend THE SIAMESE TWIN in chipping yellow paint on its doors, I was trying to nap beside Chang.
My eyes were not closed for long. My brother tapped my shoulder. "Eng?"
I knew better than to ask him to quiet when he was in one of his talkative moods.
"Maybe," Chang said, "you read out loud?" He spoke in a soft voice whenever asking me for something.
"Now?" I made a show of closing my eyes more tightly. "I'd prefer not."
"A Shakespeare speech from your book, make the trip go faster?" There was a shiver in his words from the bustle of our ride. I felt his half of our stomach spasm.
"Let me please catch a little rest," I said, opening an eye. "Why don't you read it yourself?"
"Me? You joking." The listlessness in Chang's smile suggested what it is to spend three decades within five to seven inches of one another. "Eng?"
Reporters love to mention that I am the "less dominating member of the pair." A man may be quiet, does that mean he is not assertive?
"Eng?" That we hadn't eaten in hours spoiled his breath.
I shut my eyes tight again. Nailing down a personality is about as easy as pinning marmalade to a wall. I faked a snore.
"Eng!" he said, patience being a luxury allowed those who have more obliging brothers. "I know you not asleep."
The dust of riding whisked us into Wilkesboro, the last stop on this junket of somersaults and smiles that had spanned the eastern seaboard. I could not have imagined that in Wilkesboro we would meet the women who would-for all the kings I'd met and the nations I'd been-make up the kingdom in which I'd walk.
Chang had the driver bridle our two horses to a stop in a grassy square near the center of town: a little commons that had not yet changed its name from "Union Square" to "Westwood Park." This open space was blotchy with killed grass, its unused flagpole stood without purpose in the wind. A line of four threadbare trees gesticulated like marionettes behind the flagstaff.
Townspeople rushed at us from every direction. Dozens of unkempt children and their unkempt parents gathered round our carriage, pointing fingers. The rest of the population climbed on roofs for a better view. My brother grinned at them all. He delivered his patented wave, like a little boy proving with a casual flick that his hand is clean on both sides-the motion Queen Victoria used to greet her masses.
"Come down, carriage man," my brother called out to our driver, wetting my face with spittle. "Will you please open door?"
The driver muttered at us from his buckboard. I asked this idiot, "Did you say something?"
He let us out, his well-shaved cheeks pink as Mekong tuna meat. He said, "Nothing, sirs."
"You are addressing Eng alone." I accepted the man's hand, stepping from the carriage with my brother close on my left. "Do you hear my twin talking? You must say, 'Nothing, sir.'" I was tired and irritable. "When you speak to Eng, you speak to one 'sir,' not two."
Far away, between the rough corners of Wilkesboro's buildings (small white Presbyterian church with no steeple, narrow white beer parlor, small white general store displaying all its stock in its window), rows of sleeping blue mountains hid in shadow, each more blurred than the last. And the full moon had begun its crawl across the sky.
Everything about this environment seemed animated by our arrival: the crowd gathering on all sides of us; the bandy-legged old man in a white suit who limped across Union Square with a yellow rose in his lapel, and the pair of young girls who ran over and walked him arm in arm toward our carriage; the slaves across the courtyard pitching straw and pretending not to look; the dirty little white hands poking our ligament as we stepped from the carriage. Several reached for my face.
"Chang-Eng!" Even the dirtiest of children radiant like they'd just been given candy. "Mutant, mutant!"
"Thank you," Chang and I said as the dust gathered on our identical black suits-tight and crisply English in cut, the very ones Barnum had bought for us. Strolling through the crowd, my brother and I were two complete bodies affixed at the chest by a fleshy, bendable, seven-inch-long ligament resembling a forearm.
"Chang-Eng acknowledging you, good people," Chang said. We crossed Main Street side by side, in the calibrated rhythm of our united movement, arms sweaty over each other's shoulders. Like Chang, I wore my hair in a black braid long enough to curl around my head. I tied it in a blue silk tassel that fell over my brother's shoulder, as his fell over mine.
North Carolina was a welcome change from Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, that series of East Coast cities that even before the War of Yankee Aggression had become as vulgar as a row of women of easy virtue on a street corner. Some believe the war divided America's history in one stroke, all at once advancing Northern manufacturing and the forward parade of Yankee progress. But by December 1842 the North had swelled so hastily it simmered with industry and crime and most of all too many people, while Southern towns like this remained in rural condition, natural as ever. Wilkesboro was among those bygone cheerful hamlets that were so numerous across the map of North Carolina they seemed like stars in the nighttime sky, before Reconstruction hobbled the South.
My brother kept his smile and hadn't quit waving to the townsfolk. Few returned his greeting. A yellow-skinned man and his conjoined twin may be admitted into a village in North Carolina, but will never be adopted by it fully.
Main Street was rounded, with a humped center and sloping sides, and it led us across town. Chang and I were silent as we walked; I rarely spoke to him. At all times, a wordless debate concerning the fundaments of movement traveled across our bond like a message across telegraph wire, and that was conversation enough. I called this the Silence, and I was comforted by it.
The people of Wilkesboro had begun to follow us at a distance: here two blond schoolgirls crouched behind a craggy black oak tree to stare; there, in the Law Office Building, under the pressed-metal facade, a few cheerful boys shouted taunts. One brave Negro walked near us before scampering off to giggle behind some wagons tethered to the Court House gallery; across the street near a livery stable a woman froze in her tracks to gape at the Twins, her face turning pale as death. A few townsfolk, however, did smile openly at us as we passed, and let fly a friendly giggle whenever Chang waved.
"Eng," Chang said, crimping his eyes as he often did when he found his happy place in the world. "It is exciting, yes?" With his free hand he smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
"Brother, I don't know what you mean."
Chang was taken off guard; he always managed to discount that we were miles apart in temperament.
"Well," he said, searching my face, "this, I mean!" Crooking our ligament, he drew himself in front of and even closer to me, and he looked over my shoulder at the now large crowd following at our heels. Chang and I continued to walk in this manner-nearly face-to-face, with my brother striding backward-as he flung his hand in the air and waved at the people. Everyone clapped. Chang swung around to face forward again.
It was this sort of pandering showmanship that I hated, and strove to avoid for most of my career. (Like most everybody, I am proud of certain accomplishments: that we never participated in, nor were in any way associated with, an American circus; my predilection for reading, which saved me from the manner of immigrant speech that Chang never lost.)
Main Street came to an end at the Yates Inn. A Southern community such as Wilkesboro, in its distant relation not only to the central government, but also to neighboring villages, believes itself an individual, free from all others. And yet, little inns just like this one were features of nearly all minor Southern towns, and by now Chang and I felt at home loitering by innyards, waiting to be admitted.
Wilkesboro's version of the Southern hostel was a two-story unpainted log house, its modest front yard overgrown with chokecherry. A giant woman sat on the inn's drooping front porch, fanning herself in the skeletal shade of leafless oaks. She was some five hundred pounds, if not more, this innkeeper. Moist patches of her scalp were visible under her thin gray hair, like peat bog spied through the reeds of a marsh, and her hairline gave way to a glistening forehead just as a marsh would open onto a river.
My brother and I came to stand before her, resting our two free hands on the porch railing. The lady innkeeper scrutinized Chang and me in our unforgiving black. "A charming creature"-her bassy voice wiggled the flesh hanging below her chin-"just about as strange as they say." I could not tell whether the woman's face was friendly or taunting. She wore a homemade dress of gray cloth-stuff made with no thought to style. Her skin refused contour. Birds shrieked in the trees.
I imagined this woman a courtier in His Majesty King Rama's palace, bejeweled, dressed in silk while four or five husbands danced around her, runty men with short life spans.
To her left stood a frowning boy in a straw hat with a crooked rim. To her right, a pair of blond women-her daughters, I guessed, though they were not so young-long-faced, flat-chested, and each with lip rouge on her front teeth. The taller one's eyes flickered impatiently, like the wings of little birds. The way she did not turn away in horror gave me the urge to saw through my ligament. It was the light at that hour, or my fatigue pressing in, but I believed she was smiling at me.
My brother's skin was mucky as the Mekong itself, his breathing a gasp.
The declining sun acted on the girl's fine hair, cutting it into elements of gold and pink gold and shadow. She blushed and bowed her head, but she continued to peek at me from under her brows with eyes the color of blueberries. She bit her lip. A young lady was looking at me, of all things, and smiling. I could not fathom it-looking into my eyes! I returned her stare, I don't know where I discovered the courage.
Only a few seconds passed, evidently, though I was sure the moment slipped from the calendar. For the seeming eternity I stood there, my heart pounded only once, a single thunderclap, echoing. This strange girl's clear eyes looked like safe worlds in which to escape the circumstance of what I was.
Chang's heart, too, began to go frantic for this tall blond innkeeper's daughter-I felt it. Was it me the girl was fixing her gaze on, or the twin close at my side?
The whole time, the girl's sister stood in shadow and chewed at her nails. But before long this one was looking up into my face, too, without smiling or frowning. The entire town had gathered behind us, watching everything. And the sisters' large mother leaned forward in her groaning seat and straightened her dress, patted her hair.
"Jefferson," the large woman said to her boy. "Go get your father." Daintily, she removed a little gnat that had flown into her mouth. "Tell him I found a pair of husbands for your sisters."
I swear the townsfolk cheered.
Reprinted from Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Darin Strauss. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.