Until I read The Family Chao, my favorite novel by Lan Samantha Chang was All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (2010), a story about two poets who meet in grad school and maintain their friendship into adulthood, despite the very different paths their lives take. It's a novel that explores intimate feelings about love, success, and writing as one poet, a humble and deeply private man retreats into a solitary lifestyle and the other, more ambitious and entitled, follows a career into the bright lights of literary success. It is a stunning book, and for anyone interested in writing, it provides an illuminating glance into grad school where work and relationships are shaped in the high heat of extreme devotion to craft, mentors, and shared insight.
The Family Chao is another stunner. Published recently, it has more links to Chang's first novel, Inheritance, an expansive, family-centered story set during turbulent times in China that ends with emigration to New York. While The Family Chao is not geographically expansive like Inheritance, it is similarly centered on Chinese culture and family, in this case, Chinese American families living in the small city of Haven, Wisconsin. It achieves the same intensity of place as All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, yet instead of a grad school dominated by a seductive and brilliant mentor, relationships are forged in the heated context of a restaurant dominated by the abusive and arrogant patriarch of the family, Leo Chao.
Abuse is the theme of Chang's latest novel, the racial abuse experienced by Chinese immigrants that shapes their lives as they make their way in this midwestern city, as well as the constant verbal abuse Leo Chao heaps upon his wife, sons, and restaurant workers. What one takes in, one puts out: that is how it worked with Leo Chao, and in this affecting portrayal of the Chinese diaspora, Chang is additionally inspired to create events that are as suspenseful and dramatic as the best crime thriller, in this case, a murder and a trial. Yet this is not a genre novel. First of all, there are no guns. But there is a weapon, and it's clunky and far from sexy, though it is introduced in the classic Chekhovian manner. Here the pistol hanging on the wall is an outdated freezer room in the basement of the Fine Chao restaurant. Everyone in the family has been inside it and everyone knows that the only means of egress is a key on an interior shelf. If that key were missing, a simple errand to grab a few packages of frozen broccoli would be fatal. That hasn't happened, and every year the code violations are overlooked by a compliant inspector. When James, the youngest of the three Chao sons, enters the freezer, he is careful to make sure the key is there. This is how we are trained, as readers, to expect deadly mischief and this is the means through which a low voltage suspense is introduced and then slowly brought to a boil, making this a novel that is difficult to put down.
The reader follows the trial through the eyes of a young Chinese American girl who is writing an opinionated, extremely unprofessional report for her journalism class, and this is another inspired departure from genre standard, but what keeps this novel firmly rooted in the literary tradition is the way the characters drive the plot. The youngest of the three brothers is James and though the omniscient narrative enters the minds of all three, it is James the reader has a soft spot for. He has returned from college still a virgin, the only child who feels tenderness for the father his brothers have turned against. It's not because Leo Chao deserves his regard, more that James is an innocent. He doesn't know how to nurture hatred and perhaps this is because James lacks the competitive edge his brothers possess in abundance. In a rare moment of dialogue with his father he confesses that his only ambition is "to be small, to be a part of something larger than himself"(214), and as the only male in this family who professes any kind of humility, his character balances the volatility and desperation of the others. He becomes the reader's touchstone and as he enters a first sexual liaison with a young woman he has known and loved since childhood, a dalliance of great tenderness and affection, he notices that he is beginning to change. Every time he makes furtive plans for their next assignation, "he's aware... of a depth and cunning he never knew he had. With each successful machination, he stretches the reach of his inheritance: Chao wiliness, Chao secrecy, Chao cunning. Still, he's surprised when things work out"(173-4).
James is a voice of calm in a novel where all the other males of the family speak and act with an intensity James lacks. We watch Dagou, the eldest, cook an elaborate feast to impress his white girlfriend and show his father, who has retired from the kitchen, that he is the rightful heir of the restaurant. And we watch Ming, the middle son, who early on escaped the racist confines of Haven, Wisconsin to become a successful financier in New York City, as he makes a frenzied appearance and then quickly exits from the family event that has brought all of them back to Haven, only to turn around and reappear again. And though we have glimpses of the pressures that were heaped on these Chinese American sons as they grew to adulthood in this white, midwestern world, we also know the hatred that burns in their core: hatred for their father, a man who declaims with such rancor and venom every one of his words burn.
James is the necessary cool to the overheated emotions of the others. As a character, he is the counterweight that keeps the narrative balanced. It makes me realize that every successful novel must in some way achieve a balance between these extremes: hot and cool, intense and calm, dramatic and mundane, and The Family Chao shows that one way to achieve this balance is through character. James is the antidote to Leo's volatility, Ming's bitterness, and Dagou's frantic but brilliant cooking.
Chang, Lan Samantha. The Family Chao. New York: W.W. Norton, 2022.