Despite her post-USC Wallace Stegner Fellowship and her Columbia MFA, Wang’s style has an authenticity that derives from a “global” workshop-free perspective, an authorial fluidity that reveals a thoroughly enlightened study of character beyond all cultural expectations. Her characters are millennials and Chinese or Chinese Americans, but their lives, like Chekhov’s characters, are ordinary lives set in bold relief against the ordinary. The extraordinary appears and is magically absorbed into the familiar, like a dazzling new coat slipped on over old clothes.
Thus, in “Echo of the Moment,” a lonely young Chinese-American woman living in Paris named Echo (one of the rare over-indicators in Wang’s lexicon) is granted a chance at a new glittering lifestyle via a purloined high-fashion wardrobe, losing her already-tenuous sense of self by dressing up in another’s identity. She becomes an “echo” of “a splinter-thin Korean girl” who committed suicide and whose closetsful of haute couture, left behind in her apartment, begin to both spotlight and erase Echo. “How could anyone who owns a pair of marbled horsehair boots want to die?” Echo asks.
Yet death waits below the surface like the lost plane reported in the news, “a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing,” that has vanished, seemingly without a trace. The world listens for the “ping” of the black box below the surface, but there is no sonar, no echolocation coming from the downed wreckage, rising from the depths. Echo quickly becomes famous in fashion photographs, wearing the dead girl’s clothes, which, with understated creeping horror, fit perfectly. She finds herself with a new paramour’s family on “an ambassador’s yacht” off the coast of Crete, drinking champagne, “suited up” in her sudden fame.
A blue whale surfaces all at once, swimming parallel to the length of the yacht. As the other passengers reach over the side, trying to pet the whale’s great brow, Echo remains on a high deck, staring directly back at the whale’s searching eye. She realizes that the leviathan is toying with her, with all of them, in a brilliant fissure that only appears to be reality: “Look, the eye said, I’m just humoring you, you small insignificant being. You? You’re not even worth killing.”
To bring off that swift murderous judgment by Nature in its formidable abrupt apparition — floating just at the edge of melodrama — is a feat of imaginative skill beyond most debuting (or experienced) writers.
But Wang manages this kind of epic grace and ceremony in story after story. In “Vaulting the Sea,” a young boy, Taoyu, is sent away to boarding school, then is trained as a diver. His diving talent is matched by his roommate’s. Taoyu and Hai spend every hour of the day together practicing synchronized dives. They become famous, an incomparable athletic duo, as they train for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing:
In the air, they were one body reflected in a mirror. A dancer in a glittering spectacle whose pirouettes begin and end as quickly as a flash of lightning. Always the stronger diver must compensate for the weaker one, and without having to make eye contact, Taoyu knew where Hai was in the air at all times. He knew Hai’s eyelashes would touch his knees on the first revolution and then his warm breath would burst out in front of him at the extension. To the people in the stands, they looked like two wings of a single bird.
This passage lifts off for the reader into lyric beauty, and then erotic particularity. Notice how the perspective shifts swiftly from the universal to the third person and back to the universal. This lightning-quick progression matches the trajectory of the dive and mirrors the sexual act itself. The two bodies in tandem, in the sparkling air over water, also articulate the secret unspoken passion of one diver for the other.
It is Taoyu’s hidden desire for Hai that tortures him, yet it is their flying acrobatics in air and water that keeps him connected to this forbidden longing. Taoyu “knew only that what he was feeling was wrong” — and this knowledge overpowers him. Yet, their proximity as bedmates in the school dormitory reproduces their diving dance and its effect on one partner:
And who’s to say if one boy’s heart was beating too fast when their hands touched. Or one person was trembling while the other slept. Or maybe in a nightmare, they wrapped their arms around each other, their eyes closed, turning and struggling until the struggling ceased.
Here, the tension is held in restraint just enough to let the immense power of the erotic blaze in both frustration and fulfillment.
The social politics of China are on view below the surface, where we find that same sex love remains unwelcome and hetero family life is paramount. Wang’s description of submerged passion is riveting not because of repressive laws, but because she has captured the physicality of longing alongside the physicality of agility. It is from both that the power of art emanates: in language, sculpture, painting, and dance.
At the story’s end, and the start of the dive, Taoyu blows the partnership, refuses to jump, and “trade[s] one life for another,” leaving all expectations of the future “up there on the board.” In the exquisite depiction of irrevocable loss, he watches Hai’s body “flail underwater, searching for his own.” The perfect ending becomes the perfect destruction of romance, the end of youth and the unfathomable “other life.” As Hai’s body twists, reaching out for Taoyu’s underwater, “it looked like an elaborate wave goodbye.”
The Chinese language itself comes under lyrical scrutiny as the figurative nature of the ancient ideographic character delivers meaning in a manner unlike and beyond other languages, including English. Writing about Chinese characters, Wang analyzes the language’s elegant precision. Yet the guiding force behind such artful authorial composition is the imagination’s capacity to think stylistically in two languages at once:
In Chinese we can ask “What’s it like?” because “it” can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple sounding as the one-syllable “men,” which means that you’re stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?
It can only compare in writing like this. Not in the send-up of clumsy barking English (“We learned how to throw the word ‘love’ around, say ‘LOL’ and laugh without laughing”) but in this profound twinning of two-language consciousnesses. The combination is stylistically ambitious in a way rarely seen in prose fiction.
There are, however, stories here that don’t quite measure up (“Days of Being Mild,” “Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments”) to the very best. But the very best are extraordinary. “For Our Children and for Ourselves” is a tale of a young provincial Chinese man who is “purchased” by a wealthy Chinese-American business woman to wed her mentally challenged daughter — and to live in California in luxury for the rest of his days in exchange for his freedom.
This young man, Xiao Gang, is haunted by images of bees and of an old man who tended great hives of honeybees. Xiao Gang is apprehended by a kind of fate, falling helplessly into the grasp of yuan fen. Yuan means the fateful meeting of two people with the mutual hope of possible love. Fen is the responsibility of fulfillment of this promise. Wang writes: “Yuan and fen make love stories possible.” Invisible strings pull Xiao Gang into this destiny, but we are reminded of the bees, who flew away, becoming wild when the old man who had tended them died. Yet every autumn Xiao Gang had waited for their inevitable return. Witnessing the bees gave Xiao Gang a sense of magic about how his own life could change: he was the son of a long line of farmers “who didn’t want to be farmers.”
When Xiao Gang boards the plane that will take him to the United States, he feels the pull of his abandoned fate: “He closed his eyes and for a moment felt himself covered with the old man’s bees, those old friends, as if they were trying to lift him off the seat, out the window, and back to the soil where they were born. They glistened over his body like fireworks.”
“Future Cat,” the penultimate story, plays with the idea of aging through a technological toy, a “Wine Ager” that is supposed to enhance the years of a good bottle. Maggie, the story’s “heroine,” tries it out on a Château Margaux meant to improve with time, but her experimentation broadens to a kind of giddy cruelty. She “age[s] to death” a snail, peeled from the sidewalk, then dewy fruit that shrivels, then focuses the device on her cat, Small Cow, who survives the “aging” (presumably because of its nine lives) but is “not the same.” At the story’s end, Maggie faces the inevitable experiment with technology that may bring about her own death. “Stop!” Maggie blurts out, but she cannot stop.
The book’s final story “The Art of Straying Off Course” is the culmination of Wang’s play with fate, language, and ideas of surface, space, and time. The narrator bounces around the world, then falls in love and begins to pursue the study of architecture. “Architecture is not about rationality. It’s about irrationality. Everything memorable is irrational.” The story winds around itself before breaking into “irrationality” toward its end, a lyrical scattering of seemingly unrelated moments that turn somehow political then “philosophical”:
My grandmother would have been watching me when my mother preached about the Hundred Flowers movement, while she learned how to kiss by watching Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. When she learned how to sing by singing “L’Internationale.” “Neutrality only aids the oppressor,” she would have said. “What do we really have but our moral consciousness?”
Sporadic meditations on a mother’s life, a series of whirling choices including marriage, a move to California: all these moments collide and levitate together in the finale at a futuristic “hotel,” at the very “edge of the earth” as the narrator and her daughters are heading into space: “Behind me, through the window, all the places I am trying to leave behind. All that wonderful chaos, horizontal, never-ending.”
Writing like this will never stop enlightening us. Xuan Juliana Wang has offered us “home remedies” that do not work for the safe perpetuation of predictability. Instead, these stories remedy the absence of wonder in language. Her voice comes to us from the edge of a new world.
Carol Muske-Dukes is an award-winning author of nine books of poems, four novels, two collections of essays, co-editor of two anthologies, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book of poems, Blue Rose from Penguin, was a long list finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2018–2019). She also founded USC’s PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing and is a former poet laureate of California.