The tricky thing about child narrators is that, like children themselves, they are often obnoxious. They can also be too cute, too smart, cloying, fatally earnest, or too innocent to be interesting. You want to put them to bed or kick them off the plane, or seek out the company of a real child, whose every remark doesn’t have behind it adult manipulations. Their least appealing quality may be that the only thing they have to talk about is childhood itself. Often writers who wear the child’s mask seem merely to have found an occasion and an excuse for their own regression. It can be creepy.
The narrators of the seven stories in Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart aren’t exactly children, and they suffer from none of the problems I’ve just listed. Zhang, the author of two poetry collections and an accomplished essayist, writes mostly in the past tense, and most of her narrators make it clear with offhand remarks that they’re speaking of long-ago events from the perspective of adulthood. But they speak in the language of childhood, with its unruly spirit and raw emotions. Zhang maintains a deceptive sort of control, moving backward and forward in time, scrolling through memories, lending her stories the quality of rambling monologues and concealing the seams of the exquisite design of the book as a whole, its raucous set pieces, and long, looping sentences. The result is a forceful performance and one of the knockout fiction debuts of the year.
Sour Heart is a fractured bildungsroman, a gallery of alternate selves, and there’s a progression to the stories, all of which are told by daughters of Chinese immigrants in New York and on Long Island, and most of which are explicitly linked through a family portrayed in the opener, “I Love You Crispina”: a desperate mother, father, and daughter who move houses every few months around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens during the 1980s. (In other stories we meet families who hosted or otherwise helped out this family during its hardest times; the book’s final story returns to this family.) “I Love You Crispina” is also the book’s strongest story, in part because its stakes are the highest. Christina, the narrator, is a girl with a persistent itch and scratches all over her body (she sleeps with oven mitts on to keep her from bleeding all night). She’s on the verge of being sent from New York to Shanghai for a time so her parents can try to get a leg up. The move will rip her away from her devoted, long-suffering mother and her hardworking but philandering father. It’s Zhang’s portrait of the family’s sheer deprivation that yields its stylistic highs. Like Christina’s itch, in this sentence poverty is both a state of mind and something visible on the skin:
It embarrassed me whenever my mom or my dad trumped me (although it was never on purpose) with how thoughtful they were, and by comparison, how thoughtless and selfish I had been in only thinking for myself when it seemed like every second of every day my parents were planning to undergo yet another sacrifice to make our lives that much better, and no matter how diligently I tried to keep up, there was always so much that was indiscernible—it was so hard to keep track of every detail, like how my parents shared the same pair of dress shoes, alternating their schedules so my father could wear them during the day and my mother at night even though they were four sizes too big for her and that was why she tripped so often and had so many scrapes on her body.
This accounting of sacrifices and its impossibility is Zhang in her heartbreakingly serious mode. Just as often, her narrators are vulgar, prickly, silly, misanthropic, or elegiac. And each story is a self-portrait of its narrator in counterpoint to other characters: a mother, an uncle, a little brother, a grandmother, a best friend, an unwanted friend. The various fathers are typically seen in glimpses. They are often absent because they’re away from the house working. One father is seen after a fight with his wife, crying, hunched over, and pulling his own hair out. Later the narrator vacuums the strands of hair to rid the house of evidence of his sadness.
The world of the late 1980s and 1990s — the era’s crappy television shows and computer games and fast food — is something Zhang summons on the page without a false move. One story — “Our Mothers Before Them,” the collection’s longest story — includes episodes about the narrator’s mother and uncle in China in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and the effect is jarring. Compared to Zhang’s vividly realist New York, the Shanghai passages have the quality of cartoonish myth. The rest of the story, cataloguing the frustrations of a generation of aspiring art students whose dreams weren’t fulfilled, set partly in the context of two karaoke parties, encodes one of Sour Heart’s missions: telling the story of one generation’s failure to attempt the works of art they dreamed of making because they were too busy working as cleaners or delivering food and taking care of their children, who would eventually create their own art.
When the parents’ generation is out of the picture, Zhang’s comedy becomes broad, at times scatalogical, and delightfully perverse in her accounts of kids who are trying to figure out how to be perverts. “The Empty the Empty the Empty” ends with a scene of four tweens on a bed, one of them tied to it with scarves, trying to stage sex acts they aren’t yet capable of. The children in these stories are diligent students, sometimes exhausted by the disservices the public schools do to them, as in the case of Christina, who’s made to repeat ESL classes, or by their parents’ demands for perfection. There’s a rippling chorus from the parents’ mouths throughout the book of the dangers of street violence, sex and drugs, of being a “high risk” youth: “If I somehow escaped drugs, pregnancy, pimps, and gangbangers, then I would still have to deal with my parents, and the constant unloading of their fears made it impossible for me to fear the feared things themselves as all my time was taken up fearing my parents would never stop fearing.” America itself is viewed ambivalently, as both an escape and a trap, a place full of lazy people who are somehow prosperous, where children are daily compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or “the Oath-to-Lick-America’s-Balls-Even-Though-They’re-Dirty-in-Order-to-Certify-That-America’s-Wonderful-and-Tolerant-Even-Though-It’s-Not.”
The arc of the stories in Sour Heart is upward, out of poverty, and finally out West to college — like Zhang herself, some of her narrators go off to Stanford — and the days of “fuming for hours, counting down the days until I could leave this place and start my real life” give way to nostalgia in its root sense of “pain for home,” a different sort of separation than the one experienced by the parents’ generation: “I long to come home, but now, I will always come home to my family as a visitor and that weighs on me reverts me back into the teenager I was, but instead of insisting that I want everyone to leave me alone, what I want is for someone to beg me to stay. Me again. Mememememememe.” Zhang has transformed her narcissism and nostalgia into that most American of genres, a virtuoso song of herself.