Yellow Fever is a self-published book by Steffan Piper sent to me for review by the author some weeks ago. As such, I have gone into more plot detail then usual, as you are unlikely to come across the version I have read.
The story is about denial, obsession and its consequences. Don’t expect weepy mismatched love or hopeful redemption but do anticipate a skilful portrayal of one very mixed up complex woman who in many ways is bigger then the novel. Qianqian (pronounced chin-chin) is a young Asian woman, who is a stripper and lap dancer. We meet her, debating the rules for her first working appointment outside of the strip club. She thinks along the lines of you can knock at the door but not open it. Well that her intention but by the end of the evening she is knocked, opened and well and truly entered. Result: large dollop of spending money, duped boss, suckered self and betrayed boyfriend.
She may be a working girl but Steffan is no Richard Gere. (The hotel room she goes to is from the Pretty Woman film so clearly warning no fairy-tale endings as echoed throughout the book by references to The Princess Bride, a 1987 film which Steffan loves and Qianqian hates). He is
cop involved in dodgy official undercover telephone tapping and illegally writing anonymous celebrity gossip. Oh and divorced from his Korean wife (an ex stripper) who happens to be Qianqian best friend. We are definitely in the underbelly of American Life. Los Angeles
A core of the unfolding tragedy is that Steffan thinks he knows the worse that Qianqian can be-he is mistaken. By the end of the story, her behaviour results in the death of one lover and the ruin of another, her parents reject her (Incidentally, this scene is very powerfully written) and she is on her journey to being a headline corpse.
The structure of the novel is a series of mainly well-written scenes told from both Qianqian and Steffan’s perspective as their lives cross and part over several months. You find out about their back-stories as they meet other characters or play bedroom games. This results in detailed characterisation that has the fascination of car crash TV.
But does it work? Yellow Fever has some minor flaws and two serious flaws. Clearly, still work in progress explains the sprinkling of typos and the irritating initial rash of film star names or the overlong chess references. (NB sport like cultural references assume that the reader shares the same knowledge, if they don’t that’s an audience lost!) One personal niggle for me is page 15 where Steffan talks about a Felixstowe described as being known for its Norman Churches…on the eastern seaboard! Please, it’s a run down Victorian seaside town, home of one the biggest ports in
Europe on the East Coast. And did we drink Earl Gray in the 1980’s?
The serious flaws are its lack of resolution and audience focus. Part of this for me is calling the main character after the author. This sets up a dashed expectation that the novel is going to about the act and art of writing as in a John Barth or Peter Auster novel. As suggested at the beginning, Qianqian develops into a compelling character whose behaviour links to past traumas. The reason for Steffan’s behaviour is less clear but the fundamental flaw is that the storylines remained unresolved, Qianqian drifts and Steffan chases and…and?
Now in real life this happens, we live with loose ends unresolved but in a novel, it makes for a loss of dramatic tension. If this is the purpose of the book then reflect it in the novel’s structure. For example, have the narrators talk about their past and so we gain a glimpse of the future whatever it is. It may work out for them, Qianqian may break her destructive pattern or not, or make her fortune in the sex industry. This lack of resolution for me raises the second flaw, who is the audience for the novel? It’s too well written for sex summer blockbuster, too raunchy and gloomy for chicklit, and too character driven for action-bonk supermarket fodder. Steffan can write and even this flawed novel is worth it for much of the writing but more attention is needed for what is commercial, do this, and we may yet see his name on the bestseller list.