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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Wangs vs. the World'

The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Literary fiction
October 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544734098

A man comes to America, makes a fortune, has three remarkable children and a second wife who has loved him since childhood, then loses his fortune. This is only the beginning of The Wangs vs. the World.

Jade Chang's novel is an odyssey for all of its characters. Charles Wang, upon losing his makeup fortune, has now decided he hates America. He now dreams of reclaiming his family's land in China, even though his family fled to Taiwan and he came to the States.

His oldest child, Saina, once was the toast of the New York artistic community. She and her fiance, Grayson, another luminary in that world, had it all. Then she put together a questionable third show that used the faces of Middle Eastern women killed in war, re-imaged into fashion photographs. Grayson slept with a beautiful blonde heiress and made a baby. Saina decamped to upstate New York, bought a farmhouse and fell for a sweet African American man who was adopted as a baby by a family of organic farmers.

Middle child Andrew is at a party university struggling to lose his virginity. He wants to fall in love first. The busty white girl he's with doesn't see things that way. Maybe he can make it as a comedian after all.

Youngest child Grace is at boarding school, whether she wants to be there or not, and is far more interested in her fashion blog and artistic selfies than anything academic.

Their stepmother, Barbra, was the child of cafeteria workers where Charles was at school in Taiwan. He was the one for her, the one most likely to be successful, but he went to America and never returned. His first wife died in a helicopter crash when Grace was a baby; Grace still has the photograph her father snapped of her mother just before she got on board. Barbra is usually just there in the background, neither beloved nor reviled. But she is steadily there, even if she is angry right now at their new financial circumstances.

Before Charles can go reclaim his Chinese land, he wants his family gathered. Having lost everything in sunny California, where he made a fortune manufacturing makeup instead of contacting the fertilizer manufacturers his father sent him to meet. There is a common ingredient -- urea -- which is itself a comment on the irony of financial greatness.

Charles's love and hate for America, what he thinks he did for it and what he thinks it did to him, form the reason for his overwhelming desire to reclaim his family and his ancestral land. At his deepest hate, he thinks:

America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy -- fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

Charles and Barbra gather Andrew and Grace, then drive across America in the old car they still have (because he sold it to his old ama for $1 and then took it back after dropping her off with family).

On the road, what might turn into madcap zaniness episodes are instead looks at each individual in the family as they undertake their own inner journeys. Waiting for them in her refuge, Saina has her own emotional journey when her old lover and a former friend now looking to make her part of a big story of New York failures, appear.

In this meeting of family story, and the creation of art and wealth, observations such as ones Saina make are formed:

Your clubscapes don't really exists, she wanted to say. They're a bunch of things that are supposed to make a statement about another thing. Your collectors are buying a series of symbols because critics have conferred meaning upon them. It's the same thing as buying a piece of paper that the banks say represent a group of homeowners' individual promises to pay back their mortgages. Wasn't that abstraction the beautiful thing about what they did? ... The things we agree to call art are the shamanic totems of our time. We value them beyond all reason because we can't really understand them. They can mean everything or nothing, depending on what the people who look at them decide. ...
All I wanted, Saina thought, was to make someone feel something. Money can't do that. ... You can earn it, win it, lose it, save it, spend it, find it, but you can't sell it because you never really own it. On the other hand, you didn't have to possess a song or a sculpture for it to make you feel something -- you only had to experience it.

Chang has crafted a novel in which individuals and the group -- the family -- each have their story. And those stories work together. Each of them deals with love, whether they love too much or don't care enough. A novel in which love that characters feel -- whether it's for family, a person, a career, the land, a great country or a great idea -- is a novel worthy of time and attention. It doesn't have to be possessed to be experienced and appreciated. It's a novel in which a character decides that "loving too hard was the only option" and it rings true.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

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