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by Jade Chang

BT 201704 BOOK 01Rarely have I felt as conflicted about a book as with The Wangs vs. the World. As a novel it has done many things well; as a debut, it is unusually accomplished, its prose is extremely competent, its narrative arc has been deftly handled, its characters are (mostly) vivid and its dialogue is true to life. Yet at many points I found myself grinding my teeth groaning in impatience. When it comes to fiction I like compelling characters that live on in your heart. I will never forget Frodo, Sam and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, say, or Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. They do not have to be pleasant - they don't even have to be sane - but they have to be interesting.

What I found infuriating about The Wangs vs. the World was not the characterization which was always competent, but the main characters themselves and the author's attitude to them. Patriarch Charles Wang had become rich in California but is bankrupted during the 2008 financial crisis. He withdraws two of his children, Andrew and Grace, from college and boarding school (no money for fees) as he decides they must take a road trip to first see his oldest daughter, the artist Saina, in upstate New York and then to seek out his ancestral lands in China. So the novel is essentially an American road trip with some elements of "The Pauper and The Prince" mythic reversal.

It's a decent premise. The US road trip has a venerable heritage. But too often it turns out to be Charles' children and second wife grousing about their reduced circumstances. The poor pampered airheads find themselves in a world where they have to eat hot dogs, travel in an old car, stay in cheap hotels and sleep on a mattress with bobbles and signs of age and they find they don't much care for it. Quite frankly my response was to feel - So what?

Similarly, Chang's prose is deft and supple, vivid with being florid and metaphorical without verbosity. It is impressive. But I could do without her lovingly describing the accouterments and accessories of wealth. It's like the obsessive delineation of brands in American Psycho without the irony. At times, the book reads like a rather more literate version of Vogue, precisely capturing the inane distinctions that make up the sartorial and social judgments of moneyed tastemakers. (This is, of course, Chang's milieu, having been the West Coast editor of Metropolis magazine, which covers architecture, culture and design).

The Wangs vs. the World is a perfectly formed expression of shallowness and narcissism of upper class California, filtered through the experiences of the Chinese migrant family. But money bleaches out the difficulties and differences of international migration - in other words, what would be interesting about it - leaving us with vapid concerns, Instagram blogs and fox-fur vests and limited edition sneaker collections of that demographic. The book deftly yet artlessly captures Chang's feelings for them. The reader may be more ambivalent.


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