You have to give Darin Strauss credit, at the very least, for his daring: Who but the most fearless of writers would attempt to describe the interior experience of one of a pair of Siamese twins engaged in sexual intercourse? Maybe Charles Bukowski on a maliciously giddy binge, or perhaps Barry Hannah, with a throaty Gothic cackle. But Strauss has little in common with these writers. His prose rolls along as softly as music from a flute; it’s daintily filigreed, keenly sincere and always empathetic. Moreover, his depiction of the twins’ sex lives isn’t done for effect — or rather, I should say, not for cruel or prurient effect. Its purpose, like the novel’s, is to demonstrate the full range of humanity that these very human oddities embody.
Chang and Eng Bunker, the famously conjoined brothers for whom the term “Siamese twins” was coined, were born in 1811 in a tiny fishing village near Bangkok. Fastened to each other by a flexible swath of ligament at their chests, they shared only a common navel. As adolescents, they were feted in grand style at the royal palace in Bangkok by King Rama III, who was fascinated by the “double-boy” his kingdom had produced. (His predecessor, Rama II, was far less fascinated; when told of the twins’ birth, he immediately issued a death warrant, which was never executed.)
A Scottish exporter named Robert Hunter was as charmed by the twins as the Siamese monarch. With the aid of his partner, Abel Coffin, a sea captain and royal crony, Hunter convinced Chang and Eng, their mother and Rama III that showing the twins abroad would be educational, profitable and patriotic, respectively. The quick-witted and amiable “Double Boys,” as they were called, were an instant international success; freak superstars, they launched into their showstopping handstands in concert halls from New York to Paris to Wilkesboro, N.C., where they eventually settled, on a 150-acre farm, after tiring of the performance circuit. They became U.S. citizens (inventing the surname Bunker for the paperwork) and soon married a pair of sisters, Adelaide and Sallie Yates, with whom they sired 21 children.
Strauss’ fictionalized version of this tale — which he develops in a confluence of narratives, one beginning at the twins’ birth and the other at their introduction to the Yates sisters, and both recounted by Eng — is akin to a funhouse mirror held up to history: He bends and flexes events, people and places to suit his every metaphorical need. In literature, of course, this is hardly a new tack (Homer and Shakespeare made a habit of it), but it’s not even new to the limited literature of Chang and Eng. During the Civil War the twins provided a common newspaper metaphor for the conjoined shambles of the nation, an “open canvas,” as one scholar has noted, “upon which America could encode its dominant ideologies of democracy and domesticity.”
The scope of Strauss’ encoding, however, is broader than that of mere national character. How, he asks, can identity form in the absence of solitude — and what happens to human desires sans the oneness that typically precipitates them? Eng’s answers, it turns out, are not so terribly different from anyone else’s: “In my way I have been twice most men in that my life has had two meanings — as a young man I craved nothing more than solitude, and in my old age I longed to be less alone and denied the absence of love.”
This is a high-wire act, especially for a first novel, but Strauss (a graduate of the New York University writing program) proves spry and mostly surefooted. Nonetheless, for all the imaginative daring of exhuming Chang and Eng for their fictional utility, Strauss penetrates so deep that at times the novel feels vaguely exploitative — most notably when Eng enters into a scalding affair with his twin’s bride. (A quandary, as you might imagine, as much in regard to engineering as to morality.) Admittedly, “exploitative” may be too loaded a word, but how else to characterize the pity you feel watching Chang and Eng unearthed for one last performance, this time upon Strauss’ paper stage, poked and prodded and laid bare anew for the world’s unblinking stare?
But this, I fear, is too precious a line of inquiry, and bringing it up at all is yet another testament to Strauss’ craftsmanship: The sad affection his Chang and Eng inspire can cause you to fret unduly over their long-dead templates. His pages, in short, throb with life.