Marianna Torgovnick's Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1990) takes the pulse of the contemporary world in such a way that it sheds light on Amy Tan:
[A]n essential fact of urban life in the last decades of the twentieth
century: its polyglot, syncretic nature, its hodgepodge of the indigenous
and imported, the native and the foreign. In the deflationary era of
postmodernism, the primitive often frankly loses any particular identity
and even its sense of being "out there"; it merges into a generalized,
marketable thing--a grab-bag primitive in which urban and rural, modern and
traditional Africa and South America and Asia and the Middle East merge
into a common locale called the third world which exports garments and
accessories, music, ideologies, and styles for Western, and especially
urban Western, consumption. (37)
Reified and atomized in economies of advanced technology, the "Western" self feels drained, in need of recharging or healing in a spiritual sense, for which purpose the "primitive" third-world cultures are deployed. Simultaneously marked by its bestial savagery and spiritual transcendence, the primitive other is made to coalesce the physical with the metaphysical. In The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), imbued with such an ethos, the ethnic other's faculties of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, as well as the capacity to feel, are intensified by fusions with animal senses and instincts in order to, paradoxically, invoke the hidden, essentialist, and extra-sensory human soul. Tan's version of primitivism views rationality as an obstacle to the union of the body and the mind. To make sense of the chaotic, damaged modern life, Tan routinely bypasses reason and descends to basic sensations, which, however, never take leave of the realm of nonsense entirely. Into this strange equation, Amy Tan interjects a third variable: ethnicity. Writing in the post-civil rights era, influenced by the multicultural milieu of the United States, Tan realigns the animalistic and the spiritual with the ethnic. The Chinese ancestry of her protagonists in Secret allows them to access the magical realm h la New Age, to be reborn as whole and wholesome human beings.
Tan's ethnicizing of the primitive contributes significantly to her success among white, middle-class, "mainstream" readers living in the climate of the New Age. As Torgovnick remarks in Primitive Passions (1997), "the New Age seems to be everywhere but continues to elude definition" (172). Resembling its hotbed of late capitalism, the New Age remains barely perceptible because of its omnivorous appetite of absorbing and commodifying alien cultural elements. That the New Age escapes precise definition should not, however, discourage us from contextualizing a writer like Amy Tan in the New Age. Indeed, it is only through such a close reading of specific cultural practices that one comes to discern what has alarmingly been naturalized as a mode of life.
In consonance with consumerist social reality, Tan features San Francisco yuppies with New Age preoccupations with the self. Tan's breezy style is at its best as she depicts the protagonists, the Bishops, "busy" with their advertising business. Furthermore, the precise real estate lingoes of the Bishops during house-hunting make possible the reader's identification with the protagonists through the shared frustrations of an urban lifestyle. Interior decoration proves to be Olivia Bishop's forte as well. She expertly deciphers the layers of paint she removes from the wall of her newly-purchased co-op: "a yuppie skin of Chardonnay-colored latex ... followed by flaky crusts of the preceding decades--eighties money green, seventies psychedelic orange, sixties hippie black, fifties baby pastels" (119). Olivia is the homeowner of, so to speak, the social history of the United States, a history which constructs the American identity. …