Charles Wang is angry at America.
America had promised him the dream, a beautiful life full of mansions, yachts and sports cars. But it’s 2008, the world has been rocked by a financial crisis and Charles has lost everything. His last resort is to make a claim on his lost ancestral lands in China, but first he must set off on an epic road trip across America to collect his family. His second wide, Barbra, believes she only married Charles for his money; his son Andrew, a wannabe comic, is forced to drop out of college; and his youngest, Grace, thinks the trip is nothing more than an elaborate plan to teach her the value of money. His eldest daughter, disgraced art world It Girl Saina, seems to be the family’s only hope, but her own life is in tatters too.
Funny, fast paced and addictively readable, The Wangs vs the World is a gripping portrait of contemporary America, which asks whether anyone can truly feel at home in the post-financial crash world.
The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang gave me some seriously mixed feelings. While there was much about the book that I liked, the darker aspects of the plot made me uncomfortable in a way that sadly dominated the second half of the narrative for me.
Jade Chang is such a witty writer. Her approach to family life is sharp and empathetic, using a multiple POV narrative that works really well. Each member of the Wang family is complex and believable, from Grace, a sixteen-year-old fashion blogger, to her stepmother Barbra, the smartest and most disregarded Wang. Chang regularly incorporates untranslated Mandarin into the narrative, particularly when characters were expressing love toward each other which felt very natural. Her approach to race is interesting, particularly in the narratives of Grace and Andrew. Andrew is an aspiring comedian whose set revolves around poking fun at racist stereotypes (in such a way that perpetuates them – his entire set is designed for racist white people, so far as I could tell. It was a really interesting look at how racism affects identity), while Grace dreads the inevitable moment someone (a white person) asks, but where are you from?
As I mentioned, there was an event in this book that made me really uncomfortable – and even though it is only a short part of it, the scene that really defined my reading experience. Before I talk about it, it’s necessary for me to warn that it involves discussion of sexual assault, and that in talking about it I will be looking at plot points that could be considered spoilers, so if you’d rather avoid that – which is totally fine, I understand – you should probably stop reading now.
Andrew Wang is a virgin. He’s had girlfriends and spends a lot of time lying in bed with mostly naked women, but he doesn’t want to actually have sex until he’s in love. He’s 21, and he hasn’t been in love yet. I would classify the way that Andrew eventually loses his virginity as sexual assault. It’s with this much older woman who blind folds him and binds his hands – which he’s initially okay with – but who ignores him when he tells her that he doesn’t want to have sex until he’s in love. She has sex with him anyway, and Andrew spends the following weeks trying to convince himself that they are in fact in love. The sexual assault is never actively discussed. I found this really upsetting to read. It made me uncomfortable in a way that coloured my reading of the rest of the book.
The literature student half of my brain wants to call this good writing. The truth is that sometimes consent can be murky (although an involuntary physical reaction should NOT be interpreted as consent), sometimes the rapist wouldn’t believe they did anything wrong and sometimes the victim would question whether what happened to them was rape in the first place (Andrew never even did this. He just never thought about it or mentioned it again). It’s true that a lot of people would try and pretend it didn’t happen, wouldn’t tell anyone and would simply move on with their life as if everything was the same. It’s true, perhaps especially if that person happened to be a man.
But the personal part of my brain wanted Andrew to tell someone. I wanted the language of sexual assault to be used, which it never was. I wanted footnotes with giant letters screaming THIS IS WRONG. THIS IS RAPE. I also, to be totally honest, wanted some warning that this scene was coming. Previously when I’ve read books concerned with sexual assault I’ve known what I was walking into, which gave me the opportunity to prepare, whatever that even means. It made me grateful for trigger warnings.
It was just such an odd piece in a book that had previously been so natural, so unafraid of confronting racism, immigrant experience and the shitshow that was 2008, to have this unaddressed sexual assault (which a review I read simply referred to as ‘Andrew’s hapless love life’ WTF!?).
It made me question how sexual assault is written, if there is a way it should be approached – should we always name it when it’s there? I’m inclined to say yes, but I’m open to arguments (sensitive, empathetic and respectful arguments). I also wonder how this scene might have been different if Andrew were a female character.
Have you read The Wangs vs the World? How did you interpret Andrew and Dorrie’s relationship? Do you think that the sexual assault should be discussed in the narrative? I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts. This is a book I’d like to talk about more.