A grievous unhappiness rakes across this novel about the slow self-destruction of the isolated Nowak family.
Wang’s debut begins with a suicidal David Nowak’s reminiscences of his mid-20th-century childhood, which raises ghosts of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, both in style and in the self-flagellating obsessions of a neurotic boy. He spends his Brooklyn youth deep in a self-hatred from which he is occasionally rescued by his fixation on a neighbor girl, the lovely and innocent Marianne. When his father’s sudden death leads to the hapless David’s decision to sell the piano company he has inherited, Marianne abandons him under the pressure of her family’s disdain, and so begins the series of events that becomes the death-seeking spiral that forms this novel. Not yet 20, David aimlessly lets his wealth take him to Taiwan, where he meets a bold bar girl named Jia-Hui Chen, whose “sappy, sloppy girlishness” makes his “nerves squirm with delight.” David and the girl he renames Daisy alternate telling the story of the early years of their marriage, "hemorrhaging money" in California. Daisy’s voice is brash and matter-of-fact, a welcome relief from David’s morose, confessional detailing of his progressive madness. Eventually they hole up in a valley in the Sierras, “a place of brambling woods and mining shafts.” Penned in first by David’s aloofness and then by Daisy’s growing paranoia, the Nowaks’ world shrinks and becomes increasingly eccentric. When their overly obedient teenage son William picks up the narrative, his voice is an exact echo of his father’s. So is his obsessive love for pubescent girls. Wang's deeply uncomfortable and somber novel is soaked with bizarre details, yet only in its final movements does the pace shift from static and entrapping to horrifically propulsive as the distant hope of escape glimmers. More focused on psychology than plot, Wang's novel remains extraordinarily unresolved, with sudden brutalities that send the story haring toward an unexpected, abrupt ending.
Gothic in tone, epic in ambition, and creepy in spades.