by SAMUEL BEDNARCHIK
New York City: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Riding a wave of glowing advance buzz, Jade Chang’s debut novel The Wangs vs. The World appeared on bookshelves in early October. Chang’s novel has been deservedly praised for its lively prose and decidedly 21st-century take on Asian-American and immigrant identity. The narrative follows the Wang family after patriarch Charles loses his fortune. Charles is a Chinese immigrant by way of Taiwan who arrives in the United States and sets about building a beauty-product empire. Just before the cresting of the 2008 economic recession, Charles makes a bad business decision—a risky venture to create a line of beauty products tailored to match the darker skin tones of women of color—and loses everything. And so, Charles and his second wife Barbra embark on a cross-country road trip. Driving their maid’s car, they pick up Charles’ youngest daughter Grace from boarding school and his son Andrew from Arizona State and then make their way to New York to stay with eldest daughter, Saina, a conceptual artist distracted by competing suitors. At least that is where most of the Wangs think that the journey ends. Charles, however, plans to embark even farther east, back to China to reclaim family land taken from the Wang family during China’s communist revolution.
As the quest narrative and nod to Saina’s suitors (not to mention a mid-novel episode where Andrew figuratively falls under the spell of a siren’s song) suggests, Chang’s debut self-consciously adopts the Homeric structure of The Odyssey. Tennyson is quoted, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is referenced, and the search for home is both foregrounded and tinged with irony: an exploration of home, self, and belonging bound up with the East, taking as its heuristic a combination of western narrative and the US interstate network.
Of course, home has more than just a cultural valence, and Chang (forgive the pun) capitalizes on this, appending to this cultural component a distinctly economic one: real estate, or the home as equity and a sign of financial belonging.
Kevin Nguyen’s recent New York Times review of the novel identifies two major components of the novel—racial and immigrant identities on the one hand and class and economic difference on the other—while keeping each at a safe distance from the other. Nguyen explains the plot of Chang’s debut novel as follows:
The financial collapse is the catalyst for the plot but, the review suggests, the novel is actually about Asian-American identity. By the end of the paragraph, the economic element has fallen away and we are instead invited to view Chang’s novel as splitting the difference between exploring Asian-American identity and zany family dynamics.
Jason Heller’s NPR review maintains a similar if inverted syntax in its description of Charles as a “Chinese immigrant-turned-millionaire.” Heller goes on to suggest that the novel is about “the identity of…Chinese-Americans” and that it “drives home the fact that there is no one immigrant experience—just humanity in all its glorious, sloppy complexity”; but his literally multi-hyphenate description of Charles suggests that the novel’s discussion of race and the immigrant experience is inextricably caught up in the orbit of class dynamics. Millionaire status affords one the opportunity to “turn” one’s immigrant identity into something else, or to turn it away altogether. Racial difference is slyly remade into a class issue, a question about one’s “home’ that one only asks when theirs is not a mansion. Before Charles loses his money and then reconsiders his heritage (both cultural and material), his kids are not foremost Asian-American, but “L.A. kids”; and the only person interested in preserving the “essential” quality, or “the spirit of” anything is Martha Stewart (and she—well, a fictional she—is talking about Charles’ Bel-Air home, “a beautiful Georgian estate once owned by a minor MGM starlet”).
The novel, in other words, offers an equally complex take on the relationship between cultural difference and economic difference, that is, the novel makes noteworthy the very difficulty of putting race and class into conversation at all. Heller aptly notes that the novel resists enclosing Asian-American or immigrant identity into any one, inevitably reductive narrative; but the question of identity does surfaces for the Wangs, and only after—indeed, because—the stable remove afforded by extreme wealth is disrupted. As Saina notes, “In a way, finance was even better than art. It was nothing but an expression of potential, of power, of our present moment in time, and existed only because a group of people collectively agreed that it should exist.”
In Chang’s formulation, wealth itself constitutes a group identity that assures members of both their identity and belonging. Only after capital is destabilized do characters revisit questions of identity and belonging and attempt to answer them along other metrics.
Where other reviews seem uniformly to cite a scene in which Charles’ son Andrew performs a disastrous stand-up set around the tendency of Chinese comedians to mock their Chinese parents, we might consider one of the novel’s other Andrew-focused set pieces: his final class at Arizona State before having to drop out. Professor Kalchefsky, of Econ 201, alerts his class to the impending economic recession and places the blame squarely on David X. Li, who created the formula that enabled Wall Street bankers to profit off of bad mortgages. Andrew attempts to defend Li—“I don’t think it’s his fault. He didn’t force anyone to use it, right?”—and a debate ensues. On one side, Mark Foo, “a militant Asian kid” argues that even if Li’s disastrous formula was a “plot,” that the West deserved it as “payback” for the centuries of western exploitation of the East (e.g. “Christian missionaries stole China’s silkworms and used them to prop up the Byzantine Empire”). On the other side, Kalchefsky argues that even Li’s formula represented a “karmic kung fu kick to the balls,” that “the descendants of those missionaries…Anglo Saxons who profited from that original theft” are resting comfortably in Martha’s Vineyard, shielded from the consequences of the economic fallout. Falchefsky continues:
The scene illuminates the thorny crossroads of the cultural and the economic. Mark Foo sees the recession as justice for the western world’s treatment of the Chinese; for Kalchefsky, it clarifies the economic hierarchy by which those of the middle and lower classes pay for the sins of the nation’s wealthiest. They are both, to one degree or another, on to something; and Andrew is both physically and figuratively caught between the two positions. He, like Foo, is Chinese-American but, unlike Foo, his loyalties lie far more strongly in the West than in the East; and he, like Falchefsky, has lost his nest egg, but his fall begins from a much higher perch: Andrew is, or was, a member of that higher economic echelon.
Andrew, in short and like all of the other members of his family, does not feel the effects of psychic displacement—at once American and Chinese, both home and far from home—until he experiences the economic feeling of financial precarity. This structure is repeated throughout the novel, most notably when Andrew’s younger sister Grace goes through her own last day of school. Before Grace leaves boarding school, Headmistress Brown demands that she return her laptop. Thus begins a confused and confusing discussion of who technically owns the laptop, itself school property covered by Grace’s tuition. (The discussion is further compounded when Charles tells Grace that Andrew had to “give back” his Range Rover: “Give it back to who? Isn’t it his?”) The scene fractures ‘belonging” into its manifold meanings and suggests that belonging is foremost determined by one’s belongings. Chang wisely refuses to resolve the question of laptop ownership. Instead, Charles offers the headmistress 300 dollars for the much more expensive laptop on the grounds both that it is used and that the school would just donate it anyway for a 75-dollar tax write-off. Money changes hands and Grace leaves with the laptop, but Headmistress Brown’s hot pursuit of the Wang’s car as it pulls out of the school’s parking lot suggests that ownership is still in question. Readers, like Grace and Charles, do not know whether the laptop is Grace’s belonging or stolen property.
Examples abound that demonstrate that the Wang’s economic fall does far more than initiate the novel’s plot. The family embarks on the cross-country road trip to Saina’s home because, in one of the novel’s more tantalizing twists, she was the only one old enough to have received her inheritance before Charles’ assets were reclaimed by the bank. And Charles’ return to China is motivated only barely by cultural concerns. In such episodes the novel purposefully obfuscates what it is, exactly, that one inherits from their family. It is unclear, in other words, whether this land represents home for Charles or capital; and the novel’s assertion that “All his life, the land in China has been a promise” recalls nothing more than the broken economic contracts delineated in Kalchefsky’s lecture.
Chang keeps the economic and the cultural inextricably bound up in one another. Saina’s declaration that “you have to make money or lose money for it to make you feel anything” crystallizes the novel’s paradigm: feeling, that is, that one no longer knows what home is or where one belongs, is in the 21st century a question that is every bit as economically grounded as it is culturally.
It is disappointing, then, that the novel’s “feeling”—what makes it, in short, so novel—frustratingly softens a narrative that begins so sharply. What makes scenes like Grace and Charles absconding with a private-school Macbook is that it makes manifest the impossibility of resolving thematic questions of belonging, relegating stability and resolution itself to an earlier economic (and literary) moment. Chang’s resolve to remain unresolved, unfortunately, gives way to sentimentalism in the novel’s home stretch. Barbra, perhaps the most economically calculating character, falls victim to Chang’s sentimental turn. Spending most of the novel reflecting on her careful orchestration of events to assure her position as Charles’ second wife (and, subsequently, her own financial security) prepares to finally leave the bankrupt Charles until she pulls out her lipstick, one of Charles’ products:
Andrew undergoes a similar Frank Capra-esque transformation in his final stand-up set. Here he abandons his comedy bit that focuses on racial difference and instead—uncomedically—insists, “‘We all look alike. Every single one of us.’” He closes his set with a declaration of sweet, sweet love to his audience:
There is, to be sure, a persistent element of ironic knowingness on Chang’s part, even in a moment as baldly rose-tinged as this. Andrew’s discovery that the reason “people loved being on stage” was not “the applause; it was the honesty” is perhaps true. But the audience is there for the comedy, and Andrew’s newfound honesty is neither particularly revealing nor terribly funny.
Neither Charles nor Saina is spared the it’s-complicated-but-we-love-each-other resolution, either. Still, a too-tidy conclusion does little to tarnish the funny and insightful 200-plus pages that precede it. And the emotional resolution of the novel only partially hides the more important, and more open-ended, quality of the ending: the Wangs are still homeless. Sitting in a hospital in China, after Charles learns that his literal promised land is forever gone, their Bel Air home and Charles’ factories long repossessed, and Saina’s assets now (through a legal loophole) frozen as well, the question of home is no more resolved than it was at the novel’s opening. And so the novel leaves us to ponder a form of belonging dictated neither by accrued capital or through cultural essentializing. That Chang’s novel arrived a month before the United States collectively failed to imagine one makes The Wangs’, and the Wang’s, questions all the more vital and, tragically, timely.