Charles Wang is the patriarch of this group, a man who immigrated from China to America and found the proverbial American dream by founding a profitable cosmetics company. Twice married, his first wife and mother of his children lost to a fateful accident, Charles adores everything America represents and the life he lives as an admired entrepreneur and make-up mogul.
That is until he loses everything, in a combination of poor business decisions, lousy investments and an unprecedented real-state crisis. Charles begins to slowly and bitterly resent America in a way that can only be attributed to those who find it difficult to take responsibility for their own lack of prevision. This is evident in the novel’s opening paragraph :
Charles Wang was mad at America.
Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.
If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million —a billion — misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes from the bank — the bank that had once gotten down on his Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass — to come over and repossess his life.
Charles is nothing if not self-deluded, convincing himself that everyone but him is at fault for the murky waters he is currently swimming in. Out of choices, he stuffs his family and what is left of their belongings into an old Mercedes whose previous owner was his aging nanny, who had inherited the car from Charles’ first wife. The Wangs slowly and miserably make their way from California to New York, to reunite there with Charles first-born daughter Saina, a once-rising artist going though a life crisis of her own, in addition to finding herself in a newfound status of semi-poverty.
Upon arriving in New York, Charles plans to go back to China so he can reclaim his ancestral home, which was taken away from his family long ago. He believes that this can be his do-over, a chance to gain back his land in China and perhaps make a new life there for him and his family. Charles may not have it so smoothly however, because his wife and his children are not at all on board with his unconventional solution to their present predicament.
Chang cleverly manages to make this tragedy a somewhat humorous affair. The Wang’s bumpy road trip suffers through sibling bickering between middle child Andrew and younger sister Grace, spousal resentment among Charles and his wife Barbra (who chose her American name after Streisand). She didn’t sign up for being dragged halfway across the country in a clunky car when she set out all the way from Taiwan to marry Charles after his first wife died.
The Wangs vs. The World is a novel that reflects the tragedy of losing everything. But it’s also abundant with dark humor and almost implausible situations, like Saina’s tug-of-war relationship with her ex-fiancée Grayson. After elbowing his way into her life again and practically bullying her into ending a new relationship with a man devoted to her, blatantly drops her after his current girlfriend gives birth to his son:
Saina, I know I’m an asshole and I bolted and then I lied to you and she never had a miscarriage, but I’m a dad! I have a son! And I know you’re going to hate me, and I’m going to have to fix that at some point, and we can probably never be together again, but I…I have to go. And that’s all I can say right now. Okay?
She was choking on something. or she would be choking if she were breathing. Was that right? Maybe it was the other way around?”
It’s no wonder Saina is choking. The scene is unbelievably cruel, but Grayson’s speech is so ridiculous, uncaring and selfish that it’s almost comical. One can’t help but think that Saina brought it on herself for taking him back, but perhaps it’s this rock bottom feeling that will finally move her towards putting her life back together, which began to crumble after a failed art show and Grayson leaving her for someone else.
The dialogue in The Wangs vs. The World overflows with this kind of unique exchanges between the characters, which goes to show that life is more often than not a mix between misery and happiness. This is perhaps the novel’s greatest accomplishment; to present the Wang’s situation in a way that can perfectly emulate life. In a phone interview, we asked Jade Chang to elaborate a bit more on the creative process behind The Wangs vs. The World and the difficulty of keeping tragedy and comedy in balance.
What was the inspiration behind The Wangs vs. The World?
I feel like what made me want to write this book is that I really wanted to write a different kind of immigrant novel. I grew up with all these books which I loved and I thought were amazing books, but I think they focused more on a kind of story where the immigrant is always the outsider, you know, any story of a person of color in America was always a story of some kind of pain or other, and I really wanted to to write a story where bad things happen and amazing things happen, and I wanted to be able to tell a different kind of story.
Was the novel in any way inspired by your own family?
No, not on a factual level at all. My family didn’t have any fortune to lose of any sorts (laughs), so no. The backstory of the Wangs is essentially the same one as my family’s in the sense that it’s a family that comes from mainland China, families that owned large pieces of land and lost them to the government. My parents both grew up in Taiwan, and then they came to America for graduate school, and Charles (Wang) kind of has a similar trajectory. I thought that was such an interesting part of the Chinese diaspora, you know, that I got to know pretty well but I didn’t see much of it in books, movies, t.v. shows, or anything like that.
The novel is such a unique dichotomy between tragedy and comedy. How difficult was it to keep those two elements so well balanced?
Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it! I do really think that… that is…life. That is just real life; terrible things happen and amazing things happen, and sometimes they happen right on top of each other. Also terrible things have an edge, that if you look at it in a particular way they are almost unavoidably funny. I’ve always really admired people who can look at the world that way.
Out of all the characters, the eldest Wang sibling Saina seems to resemble her father Charles the most, in the sense that she was once a very celebrated artist who has lost that fame and success. How does this sense of failure in her career affect her personal relationships, particularly the rather unhealthy one she has with her ex-boyfriend Grayson?
Saina’s relationship with Grayson actually developed when she was on top of her career, but honestly I think it’s more that she knows that he is kind of a dick but she still really loves him, you know, and they do have a sort of very real connection. That can be incredibly hard to shake.
The title The Wangs vs. The World is spot on because when Charles Wang loses everything, all he and his family have left is each other. Would you say this is true?
Yeah, definitely. I think that it is the family against the world, and this is how Charles sees it as well. But there’s an element of excitement like in a prizefight; you want a worthy opponent. So in this case, it’s like they’re all in the fight together.
At a pivotal point, the Wangs pack up all their belongings from their Bel Air mansion into an old car with the purpose of taking what will be a long and arduous road trip towards Saina’s home in New York. This car packed with the remains of the Wangs’ life seems allegorical to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the suffering of the Joad family when they are forced out of their home. Did you have Steinbeck in mind when you were writing the novel?
I have to say I didn’t have the Joads (or The Grapes of Wrath) specifically in mind, but I think that everything we think, say, write or do is so colored by everything we’ve taken in. I read that book in high school more than once and it’s probably lodged in my memory in different ways. But as an explicit reference, I don’t think I really thought about it , at least not in a conscious level.
Why is it so important for Charles Wang to recover an ancestral land lost so many years ago?
I think that is actually the beginning of the shit (laughs). He sees that moment when his birthright is taken away from him and he feels that he can right an ancestral wrong, that maybe he can also set his life back on track entirely.
Losing all their money affects the members of the Wang family in different ways. In your opinion, who was the most transformed by the loss of their financial and social status?
I don’t know if that’s a question for me to answer. I kind of think that they’re all transformed by it, but at the same time their lives go on as well. But I think that’s more of a question for readers (to answer).
Who was the most complex character for you to write?
They were all complicated in different ways, but I think that Grace (the younger sibling) took the most revisions. I wouldn’t say her character changed at all, her character remained the same; but the ways that I tried to bring out that character added different ways to really understand her.
Did you have the ending in mind when you began the novel?
I definitely had the destination and what was actually going to happen. How it played out emotionally, I knew what I wanted them to feel but how the characters arrived at this emotion, I found it while writing the scene.
Will we know more about the Wangs in the future? Perhaps a sequel?
I have not given it that much thought honestly. I would say I am neither opposed to it nor planning one (laughs).
Do you have any other future novels in mind?
Yeah, I’m actually working on another novel right now. But it’s definitely too early to discuss (it) for sure.
Author’s note: Jade Chang’s answers and interviewer’s questions have been edited.
The review of The Wangs vs. The World is based on an advanced reader’s copy courtesy of the publisher.