The Family Chao — a Dostoevsky-style take on immigrant life in America

Basic mathematics matters a great deal to the meaning and mystery of Lan Samantha Chang’s brawny new novel, The Family Chao. How much does it cost to secure a penthouse, or to put on a grand Christmas feast? How much time elapses between the closing of a restaurant and the end of someone’s work shift, or between going to bed, hearing strange noises in the middle of the night and waking up the next morning to discover a dead body? Most importantly, perhaps, how many children does an obnoxious family patriarch have – three or four?

The latter question keys into this novel’s bold literary genealogy. For her third novel di lei, Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has written a smart and entertaining book about Chinese-American family turmoil that’s structured as a contemporary reimagining of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. As such, you already know that this is a novel about a difficult father murdered by one of his children di lui, who are variously dominated, embittered and motivated. The allure, and challenge, of The Family Chao is in balancing its debt to Dostoevsky with saying something fresh about family and immigrant life.

The novel’s setting, Haven, Wisconsin, and premise – the murder of the proprietor of the town’s longstanding family-run Chinese restaurant – offer a rendering of late-American experience that’s measurably different from the multiple if monochromatic dysfunctions of Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, and from various immigrant novels that over-traffic in the traumas of displacement. It also marks a notable new direction from Chang’s own prior work, which has involved both emotive and fraught historical fiction as well as All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (2010), a more immediately familiar-feeling novel about the hothouse battles of fledgling writers.

Instead, with the family Chao you get a lot of swearing and fighting and drinking and sex, and also ideas like this, from father to son: “We came to America to colonize the place for ourselves.” And from one brother to another: “’We Chaos. . . are full of passion and inner chaos! None of us can bear to be in our present lives. We’re charged up with unrelenting ambition for the future; it’s why Ma and Ba came to the States. . . Time is money. Place is money. Love, love is money. And power is money. You’ll see. “

This last statement is both prediction and warning from hard-minded Dagou to his sweet little brother James. The former is an ex-musician miserably working under his aging, raging father Leo at the family restaurant, invested in a very one-sided understanding of succession plans. The latter is a college student passively hoping that his success of him in school will ease family tensions or at least exempt and absolve him.

In between them is Ming, a New Yorker whose chosen self-exile from his messy family is interrupted by a request to visit home from his long-suffering and increasingly infirm mother, who has already left her husband for a northern Wisconsin Buddhist monastery.

This reassembling of the Chao family, over the five days leading up to Christmas, along with an array of their longtime friends, business allies and rivals, former fiancées, would-be lovers and restaurant employees, leads to emotive and explosive reunions, large- scale and small. The culmination of these is a Rabelaisian-grade dinner party arranged and paid for by Dagou and taken over by Leo, who doesn’t survive the night. Meanwhile, the family dog ​​goes missing and a bagful of cash – a lot of cash – appears and disappears, more than once.

All of this makes for a well-paced set-up for the second half of the novel, which takes the form of a murder trial that turns on several arithmetic questions related to possible motives and alibis. The story unfolds in multiple voices and formats, including a college student’s detailed blogging about the trial for her journalism class and some brilliantly satirical online message-board write-ups that demonstrate the ethical priorities of progressive Americans: a missing dog matters more than a murdered man, apparently. Just so, the suspicion that the dog’s been eaten by Chinese immigrants matters more than reviving a racist stereotype.

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It’s also here that the Dostoevsky deficit is especially felt: while the novel includes some nominal religious material, there’s no equivalent to the catalytic struggles with faith itself, and with guilt and temptation before God and the Devil, that course through Karamazov. In their place is a great deal of self- and sibling psychologising, which might become tedious were it not for Chang’s superb feinting and clue-dropping about who finally turns out to be the Chao-killing Chao.

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang, One £ 16.99, 320 pages

Randy Boyagoda’s latest novel is ‘Dante’s Indiana’ (Biblioasis)

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