Beauty Plus Pity, the second novel from Vancouver writer Kevin Chong, opens with the death of narrator Malcolm Kwan’s father, the departure of Malcolm’s girlfriend, and the reappearance of Malcolm’s estranged half-sister, Hadley. An aspiring model, Malcolm fancies himself an artist from a family of artists (his mother is a painter; his father directed television commercials, but was robbed of his shot at big-screen success).
Drenched in middle-class apathy, Malcolm is not a world-weary old soul, charming fraud, brilliant monster, or fascinating dilettante. In fact, he’s not an artist at all, merely selfish, privileged, and oblivious, possessed of a little more than a pretty face and a smattering of good taste.
Rather than becoming more self-aware, Malcolm is almost as irritatingly selfish by the end of the novel as he was at the outset. His relationship with Hadley allows him to see his father through her eyes, but this personal growth hardly matters when compared with the shabby way he treats his half-sister and his ex, Sandrine.
When Sandrine got pregnant, Malcolm took no responsibility and became verbally abusive. When Hadley gets pregnant, he imagines he can make up for that mistake by being a supportive big brother. What he actually does is pressure her into an abortion she’s not sure she wants, then wanders off while waiting for her at the clinic. He makes the situation entirely about himself, and counts it a moral victory.
Overwritten and sloppy, Beauty Plus Pity lacks the clear thinking and crisp prose that make Chong’s critical essays a joy to read. Instead, the style here is the fake poetry of awkward, mangled syntax and pointless embellishment. There is precious little beauty to be had, and the only character worth pitying is Hadley, if only because she’s tethered to her self-absorbed half-brother.