Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Elaine Chiew on contemporary voices: The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang

In the first of her new columns on contemporary voices Elaine Chiew uses The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang as a springboard to discuss road trip fiction.

The novel sets off, so to speak, when Charles Wang, an American-born Chinese for whom the American dream has turned into a nightmare, decides he wants to take his family on a healing trip to China, but first they must survive a road trip through America.

So, over to Elaine…

The road trip as narrative device has become so quintessentially American it’s romanticised in movies like Thelma and Louise  and Little Miss Sunshine.  In literature, the road trip is synonymous with Kerouac’s On the Road, Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Test, Bryson’s Lost Continent, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Never mind that three of my four cited examples involve white men on a rambunctious, possibly acid-filled romp that gives a new ‘spin’ to the word ‘trip’, often involving breaking the law, fleeing the law, and endless skirt-chasing.  What’s glossed over is that the underbelly of going west in On the Road is the Mexican migrant labour that ekes out a daily living picking cotton or fruit.  Even in Fear and Loathing, a book I adored in my twenties, there was an episode of statutory rape and despicable clean-up behaviour afterwards.

But perhaps that is precisely where Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. The World comes in, offering a true-blue American-born Chinese road trip as the ‘counterpoint’.  First of all, road trip novels by women are far less known.  We don’t often hear, for example, about Simone De Beauvoir’s America Day by Day, an account of her touring America’s backroads by bus, automobile and train. Nor spunky 19th century woman journalist Nellie Bly who wrote Around the World in 72 Days to rival Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, travelling with just a grip sack filled with some underwear and a jar of cold cream.  The pioneering American frontier spirit - go west, young man! - is the dominant male road trip narrative.  Chang challenges this with The Wangs; this time, rather than testosterone-fueled adventures that testify to rugged manhood, the road trip emerges from failure, when the American dream has failed.

Told from multiple perspectives, the three most dominant are Charles Wang, his daughter Saina and his son Andrew. The book is preoccupied with failure. Charles Wang is the patriarch of a cosmetics conglomerate gone bust.  Saina is an artist recovering from a first exhibition setback in upstate New York.  Andrew is forced to drop out of university in Chang’s surreptitious nod to skirt-chasing, desperately (or pathetically?) holding on to his virginity until he meets the right girl. The way to claw back former glory though seems to be a two-part strategy: first, retreat from scene of humiliation, drive all the way across the country in borrowed station-wagon, hide in oldest daughter Saina’s newly bought farmhouse; second, recover all previous forfeited lands in China the clan owned prior to lugubrious exodus to Taiwan during Cultural Revolution.  Then all will be well.

Without giving too much away, needless to say, as a book dealing with the disappointing illusion of the American dream for immigrants, it does not end well for Charles Wang. After leaving the family in upstate New York, Charles decamps to Gaufu, China, encountering more misadventures and ending up in hospital. Identity is a slippery fish and not so easily caught.  The children flock after Charles when they receive news of his hospitalisation, and Saina, upon walking into a local Chinese hospital, is horrified at the "flourescent lights" and "long, pathetic rows," the "army ward" nature of it all. Here lies the irony: the liminality of identity.  Though Chinese, the Wang children are not China-Chinese, exemplified by Saina’s inward cry, “Was her father in one of these wards? Alone in a crowd of Chinese people?” Behind these questions is the subconscious realisation that though ethnically Chinese, she, and her father too, are not one of them. Being Chinese is more than being about race after all, it is about culture.  And nothing is more quintessentially American than Saina’s rhetorical questions about the road to redemption: “The hallmarks of twenty-first-century success, at least in her world, were all so abstract.  Be a Simpsons character! Give a TED talk! Option your life story.” And yet, with failure, it feels as if America has rejected them.

What, though, gives the road trip as a narrative framework special significance?  Is it the quest for “It” as alluded to in On the Road - whatever “It” is - the experiential life, the quest for the holy grail of epiphanic creativism? Or is the point the journey itself - the beauty of small off-the-beaten tracks, the solitude - rather than the destinations arrived at, as recapitulated in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Chang’s version engages in far more character-headspeak than it tackles the insights to be had from the view outside the automobile.  The plot turns more on the places the Wangs stop at than being on the road, e.g. Twentynine Palms CA where they dropped off their housekeeper who was Charles’ childhood nanny, and whose Mercedes station-wagon it was they had borrowed; or Austin TX and New Orleans LA, where Andrew’s feeble attempts at being a stand-up comic were met with sneering derision and he encountered a va-va-voom redhead who efficiently went on to seduce and strip him off his virginity.  Between picking up Andrew at Phoenix, AZ and El Paso TX is 400 elided intervening miles; and even in El Paso the narrative exchange between Grace and Andrew is about their father and stepmother Barbara, and all of them having to share a dinky motel room in the middle of nowhere.  This then is perhaps the textual undercurrent: America’s heartland does not speak to the ethnic immigrants who have predominantly populated America’s big cities on both coasts. Or perhaps another way to put it: you know you belong when the land becomes part of you.

Chang’s acerbic humour peppers her prose, belied perhaps by her journalist background covering arts and culture for a luxury magazine.  Saina’s point-of-view feels the most natural, authentic and closely aligned with Chang’s own voice; thus, it is Saina’s story of trying to find love - first, with Grayson, a white fellow artist (a total womanising cad) and then with African American Leo - “the greens-growing, Catskills-loving, yeshiva-named black man”, that the narrative feels as if it’s taken off its own jocular mask, to reveal a more tender, introspective portrayal, where the question of race, omnipresent in the landscape of American minority fiction, finally takes a backseat to the more pressing existential questions of how to do good art, how to fall out of love gracefully, and finally, how to know whether this particular man is the right one.  These questions (or quests) may be age-old, hackneyed, but it is through the crevices and the crevasses of the weaving together and turning of character, plot, and fictional conceit that the light of the soul, particular to each individual, is revealed.

Details: The Wangs Vs The World is published by Penguin in hardback, paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.