A Chinese Ph.D. student strives to make sense of American college culture in general and two women in particular.
Alex, the narrator of He’s debut, is a listless doctoral student studying art history at an unnamed Midwestern university (though it closely resembles the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), where he works as a designer on a “notorious” weekly Chinese-language campus newspaper. He’s one of the few stable staffers thanks to the domineering leadership of its editor, Rachel, who browbeats aspiring writers out of the office when she isn’t writing ill-considered op-eds. (She takes a blame-the-victim stance toward battered women in one piece, for instance.) But the paper has a booster in Alice, the daughter of an international manufacturing tycoon, who quickly captures Alex’s attention, and their relationship deepens after she separates from her abusive boyfriend. Alice is hard to trust—is her father actually wealthy? Did she really go to Harvard?—and prone to manic snap decisions, pulling Alex into a trip to an academic conference in Boston, then suddenly detouring to Buffalo to try her hand at acting in a movie. In time, such plot turns feel less like studies in flightiness than the products of a first-time writer at a loss to manage his characters. The sentences can be as clunky as the structure: he is a Chinese-born writer writing in English, and the novel is rife with awkward turns of phrase. Alex observes “doctoral students looking as young and zesty as cute little buttons”; a girlfriend “concocted” a soup for him; Alice dons “selfish pyjamas.” Regardless, neither Alice’s emotional struggles nor Rachel’s struggle to manage the paper become compelling throughlines, and Alex contemplates his relationships from an aloof distance; he occasionally gestures toward themes of alienation among this group of Chinese students in the Midwest but rarely in sustained or artful ways.
An earnest but exceedingly unpolished portrait of expat college life.