Jeff Brown, an aging recent widower, enters a Belgian store and buys two bags of groceries. When his debit card fails, he grabs his groceries anyway. The cashier, “convinced that Mr. Brown might have either mental or physical disabilities,” reaches for Brown’s wallet. The altercation that ensues is the preamble to the deceptively miniature family melodrama at the heart of Hou Chien Cheng’s unsettling project about assimilation, titled simply Brown. Jeff Brown, stuck in small-town West Flanders for four purgatorial decades, is neither incapacitated nor disabled: incredibly, he just doesn’t speak Flemish.
Trite platitudes about the immigrant experience abound as red herrings in this haunting and ambiguous story as conceptual art, the bulk of which is told by two middle-aged observers--Marie, a meddling storeowner with a good heart and a morbid streak, and Jonathan, Brown’s half-American son who took the hint and repatriated himself to New York decades before. Separating both narratives are 24 pages of isolated maps depicting disconnected geographies. Both voices rapidly piece together the sorry story of Brown’s life. As a young American poet who fell in love with an exchange student, he moved to Belgium in the sixties to meet his wife’s family obligations but has been unable or unwilling--perhaps both--to learn the language, choosing instead to remain virtually housebound for almost half a century. “It’s been forty-three years,” he rages, “Forty-three years and I still hardly talk to people here. I love this town. And I’ve tried, but it didn’t work.”
Precisely why it doesn’t work is one of the odd black boxes dotting the landscape like so many Dutch bales of hay. There’s a clear disconnect between the bright and smiley modern socialism of post-war Europe, with the government-sponsored immigrant language programs from which Brown recoils, and the suffocating incestuous nature of a small town where even a half-American white kid is teased for “being a mix.” Possibly the problem lies with Brown himself, whose failure at communicating with the West Flanders townsfolk is a mirror of his inability to deliver on his early promise as a poet. Marie phrases her explanation in the chilling language of a child’s morality tale, thinking, “[M]aybe you didn’t try hard enough.” Is this Stand and Deliver for aging American expats in Europe? Or is it an immigrant parable in the tradition of Kafka, where the concept of a true home is so distant that it can no longer be imagined, or even, perhaps, desired?
Homelessness, indeed, is what frames Brown as an artistic product--not least the artificial contrivances of its style. Notwithstanding the odd reference to beuterkoeken or Antwerpen, there is little attempt to regionalize the speech patterns of either Marie, Brown, or Jonathan. Nobody can even state the name of the town they live in, choosing instead to refer to the general area as “West Flanders”--arguably the general equivalent of a New Yorker describing himself as living “somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region.” Cheng’s own identity as a Taiwanese national is subversively evident, as when Marie startlingly describes Mr. Brown as “an average-looking Caucasian man.” The lack of roots is also a recurring theme in the plot. Both Jonathan and Marie left the town in their teens, at the earliest opportunity, only returning decades later.
Permeating all aspects of everyday life in Brown is a constant and futile search for meaningful connections. When the principal of the immigrant language school tells Marie that he never liked butter cookies “but one summer a girl taught him to like them,” Marie misses the erotic implication and immediately asks excitedly if the girl may have been her deceased aunt. Her lawyer, divorced for five years from a foreign woman met online, keeps plane tickets on his desk that he intended to present to her as a gift; she “left the week before he could surprise her.” Marie’s “first love” is a married stranger who had dinner with her at a train station when she was seventeen, kissed her, and never saw her again. “Separation,” she remarks, “seems to be a built-in pattern in life.”
Possibly the most fascinating aspect of Brown is the way in which flamboyant, pathological acts of avoidance are viewed as ordinary, even normal facets of human nature. In one of the book’s earlier passages, Marie recounts an early encounter with death:
I remember in the last year of secondary school, my best friend Sophie’s father died. I panicked. It was the first death of someone I knew, someone I used to greet every morning on my way to school. Sophie was so devastated she stayed home for weeks. I didn’t comfort her. Instead I cut all contact with her and never spoke to her again. After graduation I lost her completely.
After her mother dies, the teenaged Marie moves in with her aunt. After her father dies, she leaves for Antwerp and--despite Antwerp being hours away by rail--never sees Aunt Hilde again before her death over twenty years later. It’s only towards the end of the narrative that she abruptly reveals that her father’s death is a suicide. (Jonathan himself, as a college student, thinks about suicide “every day” and considers it the “bravest commitment on earth.”) This retreat from human intimacy is perhaps connected to an inability to accept the individuality behind even minor differences in perspective. At an African coffee shop, Marie recommends the wine flavor to Jonathan, but he orders citrus instead. She can only explain away this different preference with a generality: “Now I wonder, maybe men prefer citrus?”
Even Mrs. Brown, seen by all as an island of competence and stability, avoids discussing assimilation with her husband except from beyond the grave. These serious discussions she conducts, unilaterally and over the course of decades, in videotapes intended to be viewed after her death. Time in Brown, somewhat similar to Mark Helprin’s techniques in A Soldier of the Great War, elongates and shortens, so that the entire span of Brown’s forty-three years in West Flanders feels as long as, say, Jonathan’s brief visit back home upon his mother’s death. In this flat and sterile world, periods spent without meaningful human communication possibly have not truly passed at all. In some sense, they do not count.
Who are we? Brown presents three possibilities. First, we are our subjective experiences. Alternatively, we can be as others see us. That these two perspectives frequently collide is evident from the text of Brown. Marie, a weird and neurotic mess in her internal monologue, is shockingly described by her childhood friend, Jonathan, as an athletic tomboy who grew up to be a “fine-figured woman” who is “blessed with sunny smiles and…that natural charm of West Flanders women.” But there is also a third possibility, raised in a disturbing final chapter which juxtaposes, timeline-style, events in the life of Mrs. Brown against both key historical events (“The Berlin Wall falls”) and seemingly irrelevant trivia (“Marlon Brando dies”). Presumably some of these smaller events relate to Cheng’s interests (the release of Highway 61 Revisited; the death of Anne Sexton). The timeline suggests that we are our particular moment in space and time. If that is the case, whose space does the immigrant occupy? Brown provides no answers.
When Brown’s wife dies, he is overwhelmed at the loss of his only companion and interpreter, but also free, at his son’s urging, to leave--thus begging the question of what it means, in the end for an immigrant to leave his adopted country. The basic question faced by all immigrants is ultimately one of values: the value placed on belonging, and the value placed on remaining oneself. This is why Brown can begin to learn Flemish, in the end, only after he has left for America. A more explicit metaphor appears towards the end of Marie’s narrative. Seeing a stone, by the side of the road, Marie explains why she must move it:
I looked around and noticed a big pile of white stones on the opposite side of the road. The stone in front of me looked lonely on its own, so I decided to move it and bring it across the road to that pile of stones. I spent a long time trying to find a safe spot, among the pile of stones, for the stone. It didn’t work. For some reason, the stone kept rolling down and falling back to the ground, away from the group. I kept trying.
Perhaps the whole of Brown can be contained in this ambivalent image. But if it were, we would not have been introduced to the peculiar and ultimately rewarding universe of a confident and thoughtful artist.