Double feature! This week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews brings comments on two books published in 2019: Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection Home Remedies and Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known. How were these two books received by Brandon Williams’ class?
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
Home Remedies, Xuan Juliana Wang
Quick Synopsis: A short story collection exploring the Chinese and Chinese-American millennial experience.
Xuan Juliana Wang’s stunning debut with her book, Home Remedies: Stories, has provided a fresh look on immigrant life and experiences. Through her themes of family, love, and time and space, Wang traverses the path of Chinese youth in modern times. Wang sought to capture the experiences of those who go through dislocation as being an immigrant. The life of an immigrant is something that is hard to visualize from a perspective foreign to the experience of being one, and is extremely prevalent in the U.S., let alone California. From the perspective of children living in a tense household, to Olympic divers on the verge of friendship and something more, to the pure fascination of a child encountering a man of many abilities, Wang is able to take the magic of being able to take the magic of being an immigrant and at the same time, incorporate the meniality of being a human along her documentation of their memoirs.
Home Remedies brings together stories of Chinese and Chinese-American millennials, their struggles, and their lives. Some stories (“Echo of the Moment,” “Future Cat”) involve fantastical plots, but her characters and their lives are at their most extraordinary when set against a mundane backdrop: “Vaulting the Sea” in particular, wherein Taoyu, an Olympic Diving hopeful, explores his complex feelings for his diving partner. Wang’s lyricism and skill are at their best here, allowing eroticism, fear, fatigue, and hope to exist together in the physical act of synchronized diving. While not all stories reach the same level, her lyrical phrasing and characterization are welcome throughout.
As a first book, Home Remedies, by Xuan Juliana Wang, is a short story collection of twelve that dwells on the experiences of Chinese youth, who all find themselves between love, family, time, sexual orientation, social status, and immigration. The book jacket makes each story seem amazing, with characters having “unusual careers, unconventional sex lives, and fantastical technologies” and undergoing some kind of realization in their life. However, the majority of the stories had no plot; most of the characters in these stories, if not all, are reflecting on themselves in the world. I think for a debut book, it was okay, despite its weird and odd book jacket, which didn’t really match what the stories much.
Overall, the variety of stories is what sets this apart from other short story collections. Each story, while some are filled with magical realism, and others could use a bit more work, has a fresh and unconventional voice. However, the language is simple and doesn’t really pack a whole lot of punch. This is a debut book, so I didn’t have as high of an expectation going into it, but I still expected some layers of complications, which I feel like I got in some of these stories, like “For Our Children and For Ourselves.”
Riots I Have Known, Ryan Chapman
Quick Synopsis: As a prison riot rages, the unnamed editor of the prison’s literary magazine sequesters himself in a computer lab to finish working on his Editor’s Letter, an official account of the events that led to the riot which may or may not have any truth it in at all.
I think the author did a really good job writing a book that was a more stream of consciousness type of story. Personally, I think that is a challenge because you have to consider multiple things, the most obvious one is that the writer is aware of what they are writing but they have to pretend to be like they aren’t aware. It becomes challenging because you have to make it sound like the person is letting their mind wander, but it is not forced. But this is just my personal opinion.
Anyways, I had a lot of trouble trying to understand what the book was trying to do. I knew that the guy was in prison and I assumed that he was probably just talking to himself, but then he went on to say that he was writing this and that the reader might think this and I was just confused. It finally occurred to me like around page 30 that he was just writing what was going on around him and talking about the prison riots and reminiscing about his past. There is no traditional plot which is probably why I was thrown off. I was freaking out for a bit because I was like, Where are the chapter breaks?
This next part is something I thought a lot about and am still thinking about: the character’s name, or lack thereof. It is mentioned from the very beginning that he is unnamed and I thought it was both a good and bad choice. I think the writer was trying to go for a sense of mystery and how this character could be anyone, even someone you know. I get it. I like it. Here’s what I have learned: When a character is important, they are given a name. If they seem important then there must be a reason why they are nameless. I was partially wondering why the character wasn’t given a name, then, because it seems like he was important. So when the riot happened—I am assuming he was killed—we were supposed to care. I only cared for like, a second. The only thing that I can argue is that he was actually a nobody. He wanted to be somebody, so he pretended to be writing to an audience. Wow, that was dark.
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman is a novel surrounding one prisoner’s perspective on jail and remembrance of his life as the jail embarks through a journey amidst a riot.
The main character is known only as MJ: a robust and complicated character and the sole narrator of the novel. The story fulfills its duty when it comes to the intricacy of detail pertaining to the characters, especially the main character. The author focuses on the details that are backed up with the origins of the setting the character is in. However, this novel fails at capturing the essence of the story, which is apparently memorializing MJ’s experience in an effective way that readers can understand. While this book strives to be comedic, it often becomes messy and confusing to follow (though I think the author made it this way on purpose).
Chapman did a wonderful job establishing MJ’s character throughout the book. After watching Orange is the New Black, I definitely had my own perception of prison that MJ hilariously debunked or even supported in certain aspects. There were many comments that one would generally not make on a regular basis that added that extra kick of spice to MJ’s character. MJ is an extremely smart character with extensive knowledge in multiple subjects including Freudian theories and principles which is interesting considering he was a simple doorman here in the US. While MJ has an affair with his Warden he also captures the raw feelings he has in his mind in terms of his relationship which is true for a character in Orange is the New Black as well. After noticing these similarities it can be assumed that Chapman has also extensively observed pop culture’s experience and perception of a jail and has added his own sarcastic humor through the main character. Overall, Chapman’s book is definitely a unique and different book for today’s readers.
Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams