The Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng
By Darin Strauss.
323 pp. New York:
reviewed by Andrew Santella
New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2000
When Chang and Eng, the world-touring conjoined twins and sideshow stars, come to Boston for a week of appearances in Darin Strauss's first novel, reporters are waiting with questions. One wants to know if the brothers feel particularly close. ''I thinking we about five inches close,'' Chang answers.
Five inches is the approximate length of the band of skin and viscera that connects the two at the torso. Those crucial five inches consign the twins to what Eng bemoans as ''a life of the accursed peering eye that never blinks . . . an existence devoid of even a whit of privacy.'' If it is difficult to imagine a more anomalous predicament, it is all the more to Strauss's credit that he locates at its core some pretty universal tendencies: to crave connection, to resist it when it is finally made and then to regret the damage done by that resistance. By homing in on the basic humanity of the twins' story and working it with such sympathy, Strauss manages to move Chang and Eng from the sideshow stage, placing them at the center of a story of heroic longing.
The Chang and Eng of history entered the world together in a Siamese village in 1811. They died in 1874, within hours of each other. In between, they became international celebrities, among the most successful show business draws of their day. They entertained royalty and others in Europe, Asia and the United States with feats of strength and acrobatics and, at almost every step of the way, they encountered doctors peddling gruesome plans to separate them. The twins never elected, however, to test the medical expertise of their day.
Strauss has a talent for letting historical context -- the details of their father's life as a fisherman on the Mekong River, for example -- illuminate the twins' situation. Eng tells their story in deathbed ''paroxysms of memory'' that carry him back to the twins' first encounters with gawking strangers, their detention by King Rama of Siam and the start of their public lives in New York. Surprisingly enough, the action in ''Chang and Eng'' really picks up when they settle down in Wilkesboro, N.C. There, they defend themselves from mob action, build a house, destroy it, court sisters, marry them and produce 21 children.
The twins also fight each other several times. Neither can win such a contest, of course. But the battles still seem inevitable because Strauss has so successfully drawn each as an individual. But if Strauss has managed to make the two distinct for the reader, he also makes it clear that the matter is not so simple for the twins. They sometimes seem unsure if they constitute a we or two I's. ''It's me, Chang and Eng,'' Chang says at one point.
If their connection makes fighting between themselves inadvisable, it also frustrates most other attempts at individual agency. At one point, irritated by Chang's excessive drinking, Eng joins a temperance society. When he travels to lecture the ''Maidens of Temperance'' on the evils of alcohol, he must bring Chang with him. Chang drinks from a flask through most of Eng's harangue.
The novel's other unions are no less troublesome. The twins' double courtship of, double marriage to and complex sleeping arrangements with the sisters Sarah and Adelaide Yates make memorable scenes that somehow never strain credulity. Before long, though, the marriages begin to fray. At the same time, the federal union shows signs of discord as well. Eng develops an affinity for the Southern separatists and, small surprise, their ''belief that the self-governing components of this body politic should have the power to do as they pleased.''
The one union that never does give way over the course of the novel is the brotherly union of Chang and Eng. They die sharing a bed. Seeing that his brother has died in his sleep, Eng says, ''Then I too am done.'' They are buried together in a double tin coffin, under a shared headstone. Strauss's novel -- its humor, its humanity, its aching sadness -- makes for another fine memorial.