Tired of overstuffed family sagas? How about a family saga lite? That’s what Chieng, spoofing the genre, offers in his debut.
Tongue-in-cheek, Chieng starts with a family tree, dated 2002, of the Lums, a Chinese-American clan in California. This is a tree with many fallen limbs. Our quasi-protagonist, 23 year-old Louis, lists six dead Lums in his lifetime—ah, those freak accidents! The latest death is that of his mother, in a head-on collision, and father Sonny is hell-bent on a revenge killing of the other driver, an exhausted hospital resident asleep at the wheel. It’s Louis’s mission to stop his father’s project; his other mission is to ease his grandmother Esther’s anxiety by tracking down his reclusive Uncle Bo. With these two frail storylines, Chieng, skipping around chronologically, passes over key moments of the standard immigrant saga: the Lums’ arrival in the US, say, or their later move from San Francisco’s Chinatown to the white suburbs of Orange County. He does show the racial consciousness of the Lums after Pearl Harbor, when the family tries but fails to dissuade Louis’s stubborn grandfather Melvin from enlisting in the white man’s war. But by 2002, the Lums are completely assimilated. They speak with a sitcom snap, Louis worships at Wal-Mart and Target, Sonny is crazy for rap music. Skewering racial stereotyping, Chieng makes Hersey Collins, that sleepy hospital resident, a black man unacquainted with rap music. The avenging Sonny lets him off the hook when Hersey accepts a rap record in a denouement a little too cute. As for Uncle Bo, he’d found his family overwhelming and escaped to Hong Kong. His mother still adores him, but unconditional love can be crushing: that’s the lesson Bo has for Louis when uncle and nephew finally meet.
Chieng’s deadpan playfulness works for and against him: it draws the reader in at first, but then its brittleness gets in the way of full identification with his characters. Still, on the whole, a promising debut.