There are the odd few things about The Wangs vs. the World that might feel a little familiar to lovers of the great American novel: three flawed, grown-up children spread out across the USA, an unravelling and slightly hysterical parent determined to gather them under one roof again, and all set against the backdrop of a financial crisis. It’s also an ambitious book with initially unlikeable primary characters, packed with interesting psychological insights and told from multiple perspectives, jigsawing together to build a picture of a modern family.
But this is not the modern classic by Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections, it is the much-hyped debut novel from Jade Chang. And instead of a traditional Midwest family suffering through a modern America they no longer feel at home in, the Wangs are are an immigrant family who have made their home in LA.
Charles Wang, himself the child of Chinese immigrants, moved from Taiwan to the States as a young man to build a fantastically successful cosmetics company, before making a series of bad choices ending in bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Saina, made her own mistakes of judgement that led her from being a successful modern artist and New York It Girl to hiding out in the Catskills. Andrew is a charming, but deluded, aspiring stand-up comedian, while youngest child Grace is a style-blogging 16 yr-old pulled out of boarding school when bankruptcy hits.
The novel tells the story of a road trip, conceived by Charles when his company fails, to collect Andrew and Grace from their schools and deliver them to Saina’s house - to him the reunion is an end in itself.
It’s billed as a comedy, and many reviews seem to shout out how “hilarious” it is, but while I was reading it genuinely didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to be. It was light-hearted and silly in a pleasing way, but I didn’t ever actually laugh. The silliness spread to the writing style too: you see the world through each of the Wang family members - including, rather unexpectedly, their car.
Only a supremely brash and playful book would let you experience a road trip through the eyes (/lights?) of a protective and sensitive vintage banger. Perhaps the car thing was taking it a little too far, but the chapters are short and don’t really get in the way, so why not? It’s certainly interesting.
In the end, despite the echoes, this is not The Corrections. The writing is good, but not as good, the characters are interesting but not as interesting, and it may be ambitious, but it’s not that ambitious. It’s more of a tribute, a Corrrections-lite, a literary exercise based loosely on the same framework. But in my mind no comparison to The Corrections could ever be a bad thing. And to shoot that high and fall short, can still leave you in a very elevated position.
The Wangs vs the World is a good book, and one of the main differences to The Corrections is also one of its main strengths: these adult siblings aren’t irreconcilably different, they’re ultimately on the same side - it really is the Wangs united against the rest of the world - which is actually very heartening and enjoyably sweet.
Published: 3rd November 2016, Fig Tree, Penguin Books (UK)