blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | The Wangs vs. the World
Jade Chang
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

spacer The Wangs vs. the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Not all delusions are created equal. In the case of Charles Wang, patriarch of Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, some delusions come true. Or they do for a time, before the novel begins and before the Wangs—a Chinese American family rich in love, and well-off financially—find themselves in economic ruin. In Chang’s book, the Wangs prove easy to love and painfully funny to watch as they navigate a Mercedes beater across the US, on a path from their former plush lifestyles to bankruptcy. This broke, unbreakable family is at the center of The Wangs vs. the World, a novel in which the ties that bind become more and more clear, and the line between Charles’s delusion and genius grows murky.

When Charles emigrates from Taiwan at eighteen, he comes to America, no doubt, a visionary. With just a few dollars in his pocket and his father’s stores of a chemical compound called “urea,” Charles builds a cosmetics empire from the ground up. Against all odds and, perhaps, against all reason, he secures the American dream—“everyone’s dream,” Charles would say—for himself and his family.

At the time Chang’s novel opens, though, the Great Recession of 2008 has hit and Charles’s dream has collapsed. The entrepreneurial boldness—or hubris—that helped him earn millions has now led him to borrow money for a doomed business venture: a cosmetics brand that caters to non white customers. The brand tanks, costing Charles everything. The Bel-Air home he shares with his second wife, Barbara, goes to the bank. College tuition for his aspiring-comedian son, Andrew, and boarding-school tuition for his fashion-blogging daughter, Grace, go to the bank too. Only the trust-fund money and artist’s earnings of his older daughter, Saina, are safe. So Charles and Barbara load the nanny’s car with the few belongings left, pick up Grace from her high school in Santa Barbara, collect Andrew from Arizona State University, and embark on a not-so-typical American road trip. From Southern California to Saina’s New York home, the Wangs take America.

Over the course of the novel, told from alternating points of view, the members of the Wang family wrestle with their own private conflicts. But Charles’s secret, questionable plan to recoup family land in China, lost decades ago in the Chinese Civil War, ropes all the Wangs in: ultimately, they make a round-the-globe journey to China. It’s clear Charles needs to believe China will save him because, as he and an old friend put it, “history had failed them both, and the only solace left was that China, their China, remained the greatest civilization in the world.”

Before Charles chases this ideal to the other side of the globe, he may be read most easily as a tragic hero “fallen so far, so fast,” a cautionary tale for other prideful entrepreneurs. But by the time he arrives on the Chinese mainland, he cuts a different figure, a man capable of the kind of character growth typically denied tragic heroes. He becomes more aware of his children’s autonomy and capability, and finally entrusts them with stories of their family history and Chinese heritage. Unlike Homeric heroes, who illuminate moral lessons for readers that elude the characters themselves, Charles, along with the rest of the Wangs, learns that China won’t save them. Only love can do that.

In less capable hands, Chang’s plotline could have seemed cliché. Ditto the novel’s nods to the American open-road mythos and a traditional immigrant narrative, if there can be such a thing as a “traditional” immigrant narrative. (Chang suggests that if there is one, it exists only, for the purpose of her novel, to be knocked down.) But The Wangs vs. the World bucks the shackles these tropes can impose, thoughtfully and with sharp humor. The novel invokes them in part to underline that the Wangs don’t fit into easy stereotypes, and they constantly flout readers’ expectations.

When the Wangs reveal their own prejudices, they are disabused of those too. Saina, for instance, refers to Barbara as “some Asian lady” in jest, forgetting that anyone who would reduce Barbara to that category would do the same to Saina: Barbara points out the blip in Saina’s logic, embarrassing her temporarily, but imparting a lasting lesson. At a wedding in New Orleans, Charles looks foolish when he assumes another guest has made a racist joke and then tries to join in: in response, Grace glares and says, “He meant the opposite of that, Dad.” Andrew, in open-mic stand-up routines across the country, tries to exploit Chinese stereotypes, but discovers no one finds them funny: to Andrew’s chagrin, and to the excruciating discomfort (and delight) of the reader, he bombs. In The Wangs vs. the World, Chang exposes her characters’ posturing, not with cruelty or condescension, but with compassion and generosity. She may roast them in good fun—Saina, the disgraced artist who “still couldn’t see what was so offensive” about her exhibition of photos of political refugees, cropped from scenes of war-torn nations, then transposed atop fashion lookbook backdrops; Grace, who believes she is now a “poor at-risk youth” deserving of donations from the teen center—but she also offers them the chance to redeem themselves.

Winding as it is, the Wangs’ journey toward redemption begins with artificial concerns and ends in a much deeper, more authentic place. At first, the Wangs react to their financial fall with disbelief and desperation. The appearance of prosperity, if not prosperity itself, has always assumed paramount importance for them. But now they’ve lost it. Before they can access more meaningful concerns, the Wangs repeat the standard, shocked question: How is this possible? Charles built his stalwart social status with hard work and ingenuity—and sometimes, by abandoning his scruples. He even padded the invoices of his early customers and built his cosmetics empire with urea—or “faux urine”—in accordance with the shady industry standard. (To Grace’s delight, Charles also hoodwinks the headmistress of her school into selling him her Apple laptop for $300. He, Grace, and Barbara peel out of the parking lot before the headmistress can chase them down.) Like Charles himself, Charles’s America “saw that the beautiful was made up of the grotesque.” “Artifice, thought Charles, was the real honesty.

Yet as the narrative unfolds, Chang peels back more of the family’s bluster, and slowly we discover that authenticity does actually matter to the Wangs. It just has little to do with wealth or appearances, and everything to do with their love for each other. Chang doesn’t let this shift turn cornball—her characters work hard to end up where they are, and so each arc feels earned and completely worth the wait. When Grace is accused of “[loving] too hard for a girl. Too, too hard,” she sees it as a criticism, but later she reclaims the phrase as a source of strength—and the reader shares her sentiment. To love “too hard” is the point of living.

Sensitivity and emotion in general do, in fact, play crucial roles in the novel, as the Wangs grapple with “appropriate,” gendered expressions of love, anger, and grief. Foundationally, Charles sets far different expectations for his son than his daughters. All of his children know this. They are keenly aware of the expectations American and Chinese societies place on men and women. They know, too, that although Charles loves his daughters and claims to appreciate women, he believes that “women [are] ruled by emotion.” And to be ruled by emotion, for Charles, is to be weak.

Saina exploits such gendered stereotypes, making a name for herself in the art world by “[being] an asshole.” Andrew defies his father’s gendered expectations too: he considers himself a feminist and is seen as weak because of it. Charles even asks him in public if he’s gay and implies that an affirmative answer would disgrace him. (The answer, in fact, is “no.”) And when sixteen-year-old Grace, who is just newly making sense of gender roles, enters a vulnerable hospital scene, only to be objectified by a stranger, she thinks that she “sometimes [hates] being a girl.” Critiques of gender stereotypes run continuously throughout the novel, exposing social inequality as not only unjust, but uninteresting—laughable, outdated, passé. If there’s one thing that falls out of vogue in the Wangs’ world, it’s narrow-mindedness.

Had Chang created more idealized characters, this point might have come off as didactic; had she treated them more cruelly (easy to do, given their flaws), it would have been impossible to make. In The Wangs vs. the World, though, Chang strikes the perfect balance of sharpness and tenderness. She takes the Wangs just seriously enough that her affection for them becomes, for the reader, contagious. As contagious as the Wangs’ affection for each other. Even in moments when their decisions seem immature and their concerns petty, they prove themselves lovable, redeemable characters, who give love and who do redeem themselves. In The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang invites readers into the family, with unflagging spirit and spunk. And though she never says it outright, her novel makes it obvious that if you get an invitation from the Wangs, you take it.  

Jade Chang is the author of The Wangs vs. the World (Mariner Books, 2017), which was the 2017 winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and art/shop/eat Los Angeles (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). Her journalistic work has appeared in Metropolis, where she served as the West Coast editor.

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