The Wangs vs. the World is a charming, witty dramedy of an immigrant family and their riches-to-rag story after the recent Great Recession. The titular Wang family is headed by Charles, a patriarch and business mogul who has built his cosmetics empire after ditching farm life, much to his parents dismay, and boarding a flight from Taiwan to the US. Since then, his Midas touch and wily business acumen propelled his business from strength to strength until his luck finally ran out after the financial crisis of 2008.
Now Charles Wang, the complacent, pompous magnate in his supercilious way, is “mad at America”. Chang hilariously points out how a real Chinese feels about the Oriental lifestyle that has become a fad in American subculture.
‘Nothing, nothing in his long lineage had prepared him for the Western worship of the Dalai Lama and pop stars wearing jade prayer beads and everyone drinking goddamn boba chai.’
Charles has this sense of entitlement about his stake to the claim of the prosperity of America, which makes some of his statements exude Trump-like hubris. “America wanted to think of itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy — fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.”
It’s to the writer’s credit, however, that Charles’ loftiness is never overdone – he still comes across as an endearing, albeit a bit delusional, businessman who loves his family and is now fixated on reclaiming his ancestral land in China. His tremendous self-confidence makes him find a silver lining even when there is none. ‘Even in failure, Charles Wang was a success. Looked at from one level up, from a perspective devoid of good or bad, where action trumped stasis, this was a perfect failure. Swift and complete. None of the usual built-in fail-safes managed to float him — instead, Charles had somehow tricked himself into erecting a needless financial deck of cards that went up only to be toppled by a historically anomalous financial tornado.’
With his disillusionment with America and dwindling finances, he takes his family on a road trip to Catskills, where his oldest daughter, an aspiring artist, is hiding out after becoming a laughing stock in the Manhattan art scene. With him on the trip is his somewhat aloof, money-minded second wife, Barbra, his dorky son who has his eyes set on being a stand-up comedian and Grace, a spoilt, high-school brat who is a self proclaimed style blogger. Along the way, they hit many snags and frequently encounter misfortunes, some of them truly preposterous, but the plot doesn’t lose steam as Chang infuses her narrative with clever quips and shrewd insights on American culture.
Chang is brilliant when it comes to characterization. All the characters are distinctly sketched out, instilled with pathos and depth. There is never a dull moment as the book is peppered with acerbic zingers, witty observations and laugh-out-loud scenes – a searing diatribe against the American financial system by a disgruntled economics professor is especially entertaining to read:
“I can’t make any real sense of it, and I grew up in a country that took math seriously, unlike America, where you just study the Top 40 pop hits of math. All you know is the Pythagorean theorem. Avogadro’s number. Eureka and apples on the head. So how can any of your finance guys possibly be expected to understand something even slightly more complex than A2+B2=C2?”
The Wangs vs. the World is suffused with such gems, particularly when some of the characters riff on how America markets itself as the land of milk and honey and lures in people with the Holy Grail that is the American Dream. Chang light-heartedly exposes the flip side of the empty promises of American capitalism. It seems that the Wangs, who have actually lived the American dream and then ditched it, have earned the right to call the bluff on it, which they frequently do.
What I loved about The Wangs vs. the World is how consistently engaging and humorous the writing was, putting a new spin on the conventional immigrant family saga that is typically depressing and sombre. Also, it was refreshing how Chang and her immigrant characters weren’t in reverential awe of America as a safe haven, in contrast to their native lands. That might be because all the Wang kids are born and bred American so we’re not treated to the hackneyed portrayal of immigrant people struggling to adjust to a foreign land or acclimating to a new lifestyle.
While the book is far from perfect — there are a few unnecessary sections devoted to the worn down car that the Wangs are driving which could have easily been done away with, and Chang sometimes takes unnecessary detours that distract from the storyline – but like the road trip, these detours are ultimately enjoyable. I’ll give this one 5 stars solely because of the self-assured, hugely entertaining writing. This book is a wacky joyride with a tender portrayal of a close-knit family at its centre. It’s definitely one of the best debuts of this year and a downright compelling read.
The Wangs vs. The World is published by Fig Tree on 6 October 2016.