A really good book or story is like a really deep sleep: you don’t realize how much you’re enjoying it in the moment, because it takes over the space/time continuum. It isn’t until outside forces act to bring you out of the state of flow that you recognize: wow, that was really good.
The journey of the Zhang family took me into that state several times over the past few weeks.
I’m still a little hazy on the concept of the ” novel-in-stories ” and how it differs from the “Collection of Linked Stories.” Monica Wood was insistent that Ernie’s Ark was not a novel-in-stories, that she didn’t like that designation because a reader might feel cheated; to her it was a linked collection. And it was, of course, but it also was a novel structured to permit shifting points of view, voices, and characters – which may be the point of a novel-in-stories. I’m not too fussy about definitions, so I’ll say that, like Wood’s book, What The Zhang Boys Know presents a thematically cohesive narrative about a group with a geographic commonality that allows multidimensional views of the characters and events.
Each story focuses on a resident of Nanking Mansion, a “semi-gentrified” Washington DC condo. I love that term, semi-gentrified; it speaks of rising from the ashes, of what is to come, of progress, of the need for progress, but also of dislocation, disruption, and destruction of whoever won’t, or can’t, get out of the way. The human race itself is perhaps semi-gentrified.
Each story allows for a different style and voice. And each story allows the characters to be seen by other eyes. Here’s how Cliff describes it in an online interview with WriteNowRightNow:
Some collections of stories are just a bunch of disparate stories that have little to do with each other. Some collections, like my first book, are linked in some ways. Either the stories have overlapping and recurring characters, or they share a setting, or they have a unified theme, or some combination of the three. A novel in stories, though, carries that linkage further. In the case of What the Zhang Boys Know, all the stories are set in the same condominium building and serve in some way—to a greater or lesser extent—to move a single narrative forward. The stories are independent of one another, but they also contribute to the overall story of Zhang Feng-qi, a Chinese immigrant who is looking for a new wife for himself and mother for his sons.
While Feng-qi is the most dominant character of the total work, his young sons, Simon and Wesley, weave in and out of the lives of the other residents, holding a mirror to adult behavior as they learn about the world. The title story featuring the boys, situated in the middle of the book, is a highlight as they both recap and project forward the various plot lines and characters. And Nanking Mansion itself – especially the Gallery, a common hallway where the resident artists display some of their work – is a character with a central role to play. What do buildings do? They protect us from the elements, from chaos. Or, they contain chaos. Or trap us inside with chaos.
Chaos is an important theme throughout the collection, as is loss; these are primary elements to each story. What losses are these people dealing with, where is the chaos in their lives? Who do they turn to when they need help? How do they deal with chaos created by loss – do they thrive on it, run from it, control it, hide it, distract themselves with minutia?
I have print of Hexagram #3 from the I Ching: “Before a great vision can become reality there may be difficulty. Before a person begins a great endeavor, they may encounter chaos. As a new plant breaks the ground with great difficulty, foreshadowing the huge tree, so must we sometimes push against difficulty in bringing forth our dreams. Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born.” The residents of Nanking Mansion are dealing with chaos born of recent loss; whether they become brilliant stars, or fruitlessly burn themselves to a cinder, to me forms the tension of each story and the book as a whole. The last story shows a return to some kind of stability; not necessarily a forever state, but a “new normal.”
I was slightly acquainted with Cliff back when I was doing some fiction writing at Zoetrope Virtual Studios (and I’ve been a big fan of his blog “Perpetual Folly” since). One of these stories, in draft form, was the first Zoetrope story I reviewed that blew me away, that said, “This is a real story by a real writer.” A second one equally enchanted me. I’m so glad to see these works, which I read in draft form so many years ago – it must’ve been 2006, 2007? – come to fruition.
There’s something that struck me about the book, before I’d even read a word, or, for that matter, even opened it: the unique tactile texture of the cover. It’s soft, like sueded or sanded fabric, or possibly like a waxed stock. It’s mesmerizing (“right up there with the smell of Tin House,” I told Cliff, though a more apt comparison might be to bubble wrap, since I can’t stop stroking the cover in what might be perceived by onlookers as a rather kinky fetishism). Cliff gave me this explanation: “Press 53 produced a book with matte finish (that’s what you’re feeling) by mistake! The publisher thought he had ordered the normal glossy finish from the printer, but it came out matte. This was actually for our print annual at Prime Number Magazine that was released in January. He loved it, and most people do, too, so he’s continued to order that from his printer. It’s definitely not the normal feel of a book, but it is for Press 53 these days.” It also lends a watery diffusion, intriguingly coupled with an intensity of color, to the cover art by Ben Will; it’s quite special, this matte finish business, and I’m surprised it’s not more commonly used.
I noticed something else while researching for this post (and many thanks to Cliff for his generosity in answering these oddball questions): in his early drafts of the story on his blog, and in the versions published online by various literary magazines, the protagonist’s first name is spelled Fengqi. But in the book, it’s hyphenated, as Feng-qi. Why the change?
As I assembled the manuscript for publishing, I began to get worried about readers being frustrated with pronunciation. I almost changed the title of the book because I know that most people will be unsure of how to pronounce Zhang, and most will guess wrong. Not that it matters, but that moment of hesitation, I think, is unsettling. The surname is one thing and its pronunciation isn’t important. But when I looked at Fengqi from the POV of a reader unfamiliar with Chinese, I thought people wouldn’t even know where to start to pronounce his first name. (Some readers have told me that they adopt “Frank” as suggested in the first story, which I think is an excellent strategy.) The Chinese themselves follow different conventions on how names are rendered – sometimes it is with a hyphen, sometimes the two given names are put together, sometimes they are separate: Mao Ze-dong, Mao Zedong, Mao Ze Dong. I decided that the hyphenated version was least confusing to readers who might be unfamiliar with Chinese names.
I rather like the hyphenated version, myself, so I have used it here; just be aware that if you should follow the links to read some of the stories (and, oh, you should, you really should, for those that are available online), it will be rendered a little differently.
But it is the stories that are, of course, the heart of the matter:
“Nanking Mansion” (Previously Published: New South GSU Review Spring/Summer 2007; excerpt (opening six pages) available online)
How did it happen that every person Zhang Feng-qi knows in America is in the same place at the same time?
The Zhang family has lost their Maddie, Feng-qi’s wife and mother to little Simon and littler Wesley. It’s a lovely opening to the novel, introducing all the characters we will come to know in later chapters, and giving us our first taste of chaos in the Gallery of Nanking Mansion: Feng-qi has just brought his father here from China, and as they enter the building, doors pop open one by one and residents peek out to see what’s up. And if that isn’t enough, this is the moment his wife’s hostile mother chooses to show up, unannounced, to take the boys back to Connecticut with her, and his boss is here to deliver some papers, and by the way, he’s late for his first date with Jessica so she shows up… “Feng-qi is a man dealing with chaos, trying to restore order, but under his own terms.” It’s not told as frenetically as some writers might tell it; there’s an air of sadness through the story, even with the crazy situation, particularly when we find out the boys are still waiting for their mother to come back: “‘People come back, sometimes,’ Simon insisted. ‘They told us so in church.'”
“A Hole In The Wall” (Previously Published: Bellevue Literary Review, Spring 2012; available online
“Our mother is dead,” says Simon. “She had an accident.”
“But she’s coming back,” says Wesley. He says it with confidence as if repeating words he has learned, but then looks at his big brother. He tilts his head, eyes welling. “Isn’t she?”
Simon nods, but in his eyes Aloysius sees understanding, a depth of awareness that he recognizes and is sure the boy won’t articulate. Aloysius knows, too, that they don’t come back. Even when they’re not dead. They walk out, they don’t say goodbye, and they’re never heard from again. They leave a void, and the void never gets filled.
Aloysius is also dealing with the loss of his wife, but through divorce. He has no furniture in his apartment. What he does have, is a hole in the wall, thanks to his own efforts with a sledgehammer; it’s in preparation for a balcony, the contractors are coming the next day, and Aloysius was just in the mood to hit something: “This will be his view when the balcony is finished. Simple enough to manage: he’ll keep his head high, ignore what lies below.” He wasn’t expecting the pigeons, though… or his sister with news of the father who abandoned them decades ago. Or two little kids, dropped off by his Chinese neighbor because they have no school and he’s running late, who turn out to be helpful in rounding up the pigeons.
“The Face in the Window” (Previously published in Valparaiso Fiction Review #1, Winter 2011; available online
And now he runs again because he cannot paint.
In a reflection of the torment and chaos this blocked artist feels, the story jumps around to multiple points of view, keeping the painting itself at center stage as the artist rediscovers his creative power thanks to an encounter with neighbor Susanna and her enraged boyfriend.
“Last Lilacs” (Previously Published in FRiGG Fall 2010; available online
With Chips, I felt, we’d allowed ourselves too long to hope he would be returned to us, and that made the loss when we finally accepted it that much more difficult to absorb. Now I had a different outlook. Loss can be prepared for and managed; loss can motivate, stimulate.
A gay couple is dealing with the disappearance of their pug; but they’re secretly dealing with a lot more than that, in this story about holding on and letting go.
“The Game of Love”
She does remember the first time they made love, how there’d been anger beforehand over something petty, his habitual lateness maybe or her insecurity, her jealousy. He’d become forceful, taking control, moving beyond their longstanding friendship. And so the game had begun.
Susanna and Thomas have made a game of minor masochism, but maybe it isn’t masochism at all, but rage. Then she notices the painting the hall is missing, and goes in search of the artist.
I molded him like a piece of clay, gave him shape, carved his nose to mirror mine. His eyes – black like mine. The dark skin, wild hair the color of charred earth, even the crooked smile – all from me. All of that is mine. His bearing, his height, his ranginess. His fucking arrogance.
A sculptor gets a visit from the son he never knew. Then he meets the now-pregnant Susanna.
“What the Zhang Boys Know About Life on Planet Earth”
More than ever, he wishes Mam were here, to take him home to Nanking Mansion, to cook dinner for their family, to tell him stories, to bring him pudding in bed and talk to him about all the things he doesn’t understand. But she isn’t there, and for the first time since the accident he thinks maybe she isn’t coming back.
Children see the world differently from adults, and as we see the world through Simon’s eyes, we begin to understand more about him and about the people in Nanking Mansion. The placement of this story in the center of the book makes it a natural spot to recap where we’ve already been, and to get a new perspective on some of the characters. But most dramatically, it’s an emotional turning point for Simon: he and Wesley set out bravely to look for their mother (“He wonders if heaven is on Mars and if that’s where his mother went”) and instead he begins to understand the reality of this planet, just a little bit.
“Hunger” (Previously Published in Cream City Review, Spring 2009)
Claudia’s sinking into poverty following a divorce and the loss of her job. In desperation, she asks her sister for money.
“The Nations of Witness”
It occurred to me then, and I only become more firmly convinced as the years go by, that in some ways the world is united by being witness to unspeakable evil. We seem to be powerless to prevent it from arising, and we do not succeed in stopping it (when we recognize at all) even by flinging ourselves under its wheels. But what we can do, and have done unfailingly through millennia of malevolence, is to give voice to the victims.
This is the story I was so taken with on Zoetrope; it remains a favorite of mine. In fact, the quote above, plus a minor note about one of the characters (and a lovely sculpture of 12th century Armenian calligraphy displayed in my local public library) played a part in the conceptualizing of one of Zin’s stories several years later, that’s how much of an impression this story made on me. Nathan is the Famous Author who’s sublet his condo out to Susanna while he’s travelling around the globe, collecting material for his book documenting the horrors done to Nanking and European Jewry, along with a Chinese wife and her daughter Little Plum, who eventually becomes his lover when she reaches majority, all of which makes the above quote somewhat ironic. It’s an engrossing saga of a complicated man on a complicated journey.
“Artoyen’s Razor” (Previously Published in Tampa Review #40, Fall 2010
This was the second story I read on Zoetrope, and I was immediately struck by the title. It alludes to the philosophical concept of Ockham’s Razor, often related as: the simplest explanation is always best. And Artoyen, the condo developer and manager, could use some simplicity in his life. He’s hiding a host of secrets from girlfriend Shelley: money problems, health issues, and most difficult to conceal, his living arrangements, as he’s staying in a storeroom in the cellar of the condo. He’s discovered by the Zhang boys, who get a dollar for their silence. But as he’s showing the one vacant unit to a young couple – if he can only make this sale, he’ll be ok, the trouble breathing and pains in his chest notwithstanding, he’ll be able to move somewhere nice and propose to Shelley, get her a nice ring – the suspense mounts as it all threatens to come apart.
“The Replacement Wife” (previously published in Blackbird, Fall 2011; available online
“It’s just that, maybe, I’m not totally recovered. From the surgery.” A thud, followed by laughter, reverberates from the boys’ room. A fly bounces noisily inside the lampshade. “Another month or two should do it.”
Jessica, age 30, has just lost her uterus. She focuses all the feelings about that onto worrying that Feng-qi won’t want to marry her when he finds out, and, when it turns out not to be an issue, on a neighbor. The above passage (in which she tells Feng-qi she wants to postpone their wedding) perfectly demonstrates the Prime Directive for Writers, “Show, don’t tell,” in subtle service of chaos.
“The Shrine To His Ancestors” (previously published in Prime Mincer, Winter, 2011; available online)
Feng-qi lights the stick of incense, watches the drifting string of smoke rise, and inhales the scent of sandalwood that he will forever associate with his father. The shrine had been the old man’s creation, his link to the ancient ways. Feng-qi doesn’t believe in such things. And yet, the memories abide here and they comfort him. He bows to the pictures, and rises.
In this final story, the denouement of the novel-in-stories, we come full circle as the loose ends are tied up, and we get a sense of a change in Feng-qi (conveyed exquisitely by the omission of a single word), and a settling in to a “new normal” for Nanking Mansion.
I know next to nothing about the Chinese language, my hexagram print notwithstanding (one of the three words I know, “hao” meaning “good,” appears in the book; I was so excited to see it, but I have no delusions about my ignorance). So I’m not certain, but I’m guessing from a few clues that the name “Feng-qi” means something like “breath of life” (and if I’m wrong, feel free to tell me, but I may choose to live in ignorance). I can imagine a hurricane of chaos blowing through Nanking Mansion, rattling the paintings in the Gallery, disrupting lives, as Feng-qi and the other residents try to deal with losses. Some hide from chaos, some thrive on it; some wall it out, some invite it in. And in the end, the wind moves on to a place more conducive to its force, where it might exist without destroying.
Of course, that’s an hysterically romantic interpretation, based on the flimsiest of facts (Jessica does call Feng-qi “Wind” at times, though it’s not explained). But it works for me. You’re free to find your own, and I urge you to try. It’s a book well worth reading.