Disbelief and Delight
in Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s Debut Novel
Review by Jennifer Lynn Christie
Michael Shou-Yung Shum, “Queen of Spades”
Forest Avennue Press
2017, 239 pages, softcover, $15.95
Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s debut novel “Queen of Spades” is the sly romp I haven’t read in far too long, its seed planted by Alexander Pushkin’s short story by the same name. In Pushkin’s original, a young Russian officer becomes obsessed with his friend’s grandmother, a woman, legend has it, who knows a secret selection of cards that will win any game of Faro, useful particularly when the stakes are high. But of course, this knowledge comes with a price, as all arcane prophetic intelligence seems to bear. There is a little magic here, a little ghost action there. But, as in Shum’s revision, these hands are slight. Similar to a good card deal, you might suspect some sort of trick of the eye if it didn’t seem possible for magic to be the reality.
Beyond a few key pieces borrowed from Pushkin’s story, “Queen of Spades” holds its own fresh place in the world. While it retains in voice hints of its Romantic era’s predecessor as a nostalgic homage (there is even a nod towards the epistolary with a direct author’s note—from “MSS”— to the reader, framing the following events as real), it owes most of its admiration to the Pacific Northwest as a location capable of harboring the most wondrous of outcasts seeking meaning in their lives. These people are—in a style that never becomes hokey—on distinct spiritual journeys.
The novel is divided into three books, but early on in the opening chapter of Book One, we are indoctrinated into the spell cast by this gloomy, though beautiful neck of the woods:
Off the beaten path of the Vegas, California, and Atlantic City casinos, the Royal attracted to its doors the oddest sorts of characters seeking gainful employment, drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the quiet beauty inherent to the region. There was something in the trees, it was oft repeated, and Mannheim, who had lived within these pines and shadows all his life, had never considered there was anywhere else he should be.
Gambling becomes the philosophical focal point of all life’s problems, and therefore all life’s meaning in “Queen of Spades.” The Royal Casino of Snoqualmie in Washington is where we meet pit boss Stephen Mannheim and his new hire Arturo Chan. Each of these men are veteran casino rats in their own ways, and each harbors their own set of secrets: Stephen, supervisor of the night shift at the Royal, is dying, and Chan as a dealer should have been blackballed from casinos long ago. As people, they are quiet, unassuming, likable. You’d think that they had nothing in the world to hide. The novel’s side cast, Sam Chimsky and his ex-wife Barbara, are as intriguing as the heroes, each struggling through and oftentimes manipulating extreme (at times comical) gambling addictions. Finally, there is the magnificent Countess, ancient and hoary as a religious relic, mysteriously at the center of it all.
When Chan arrives in Snoqualmie, he is immediately intrigued by the beguiling presence of the Countess, a woman who’s gambling method is to place infrequent high stakes bets on hands that only she seems sure are wins. Her true identity is unknown to even the most long-standing employees of the Royal, and this fuels a passion inside Chan to understand her mastery of the game. As Chan steps on board with the casino’s night staff, his boss Mannheim is coming to terms with a terminal degenerative brain disease, a fact about himself he shares with no one other than his doctor-recommended spiritual guide, hoping to find some sort of meaning to his life. Meanwhile, Chimsky, the senior dealer of the Royal’s High Limit Salon, places a crushing bet with his bookie (a man named Fong) on a boxing match that goes the other way. In lieu of broken bones and utter financial ruin, he promises Fong a winning hand at the casino in a game of Faro he routinely deals for. All plot points converge at the Royal, where each man’s fate hinges on the seemingly unrelated secrets they harbor, though of course these fixations are somehow related.
What drives the novel forward is not just the characters’ obsessions (Chan with the Countess, Mannheim with death, Chimsky with the impossible, delicious win), but a steady eye on the mystic imbued in the gambling universe. Each section begins with an epigraph, and by Book Three readers are won over by the quote provided by the Marquis de Rocheford from 1887:
There exist untold pathways that twist between the world of the infinite and the soul of man, most of which remain undiscovered. The three most direct are dreams, first and foremost; second, art; and lastly, the wagering of prodigious sums of money.
As Mannheim seeks spiritual guidance from guru Dr. Ecclestion and her young apprentice Theo to contend with the manifestation of a forthcoming destiny so intertwined with death that it can’t help but be but seen as a joyful mystery, and the Countess proves to know far more about the science behind chance than she would like to let on, I found myself believing in the magic of fate, exemplified, yes, by wagering everything you have to gods unknown. This is a happy revelation, a kind of silent admission that these characters, and I as well, want to have faith that luck (good things) happen miraculously, in streaks, manipulated by a power beyond the scope of human perception; faith (nondenominational, free-floating) is there, embodied in each roll of the dice, each deck of cards. You can try to force it, you can (and should) be a good person—this puts the odds in your favor—but sometimes the fortuitous is out of our hands and in the deck itself.
This is, of course, speculation, but it feels best to go along with the subtext of the book, which is to ask the question: What if?
In his quest for esoteric knowledge, Chan learns from the Countess the astrological principles of chance:
The appearance and movement of every object or thing on this planet, from a paper clip to a locomotive train, is to a certain extent determined by the interaction between our planetary core’s magnetism and the gravity exerted upon it by the various celestial bodies in our galactic vicinity…
In other words, the universal elements least in our control can exert some show of force in our daily lives. Meanwhile, in a spiritual session, Dr. Ecclestion describes Mannheim’s aura as, “…a radiant yellow, and streaked through with deep scarlet and lime, like veiny fingers … the organ of some ancient beast—the worm ridden heart of a sabre-tooth.” It’s in moments such as each of these that you can tell Shum is having as much fun as he is gravely proposing a serious projection of the human soul—our auras, our proximity to the moon, this planet’s relation to the heavens, are elements that lead us to our individual destinies. There is much of the mind and the universe we do not yet understand. Why not assume our auras can glitter and glow as we shuffle closer towards death? Why not suppose that planetary magnetism, celestial bodies, and their curious dance in the night’s sky have a direct effect on the meaningful moments in our lives, the times when some personal mystery is unraveled to our utter disbelief and delight? This is the happy, hopeful high ground Shum takes, and his characters, though all losers, each somehow win. In an age where there are seemingly no more happy endings, Shum pulls several off. As it turns out, this is what we’ve all been waiting for.
Jennifer Lynn Christie received her MFA from University of Oregon in 2013. Her short stories can be found at the Atticus Review, Memorious, PANK, and elsewhere. Her book reviews have been published in or are forthcoming from Entropy, Full Stop, and the Denver Quarterly. She currently lives in Bloomington, Ind.