Weike Wang’s Antisocial Novel, ‘Joan Is Okay’

As Mark slowly enters Joan’s life, Joan begins to see her uniqueness from her point of view. Joan hasn’t read the books she thinks are important, but she pretends to. According to Mark, what makes a “true New Yorker” is failing to tick any of the boxes, like having an opinion on Yankees. When it became clear that Joan had never heard the word “Seinfeld,” she said, “Mark fell into a state of what seemed like a catatonic shock. Then he stared at my doormat for a long time. … I touched my neck and felt the anxiety glow red, feeling that my new cultured neighbor was about to tell me that I had completely misunderstood the world. ”

Growing up with poor immigrant parents in Oakland, California, Joan sees professional success as a great stabilizer. “The joy of being standardized,” he says, “is that you don’t have to think beyond a certain area. Like a well-crafted death, a box was placed around you and you could feel safe in it.”

Death and boxes feature prominently in Joan’s story as she grapples with mortality and navigates both the safety and constraints of self-enclosement. She mourns her father’s death (in her own Joan way). But how to deal with death? well, and should that be the goal? In funny, awkward and poignant moments, Wang portrays Joan and her mother’s grief as messy, non-linear and palpable.

In the end, Joan is forced to reconsider her obsession with productivity as she takes a hard look at her relationships with family and society. “Is it harder to be a woman? Or is it an immigrant? Or a Chinese outside of China?” he asks himself. “And why did being good at any of the above require you to correct yourself in order to be someone else?”

Joan’s reckoning is made worse by the impending Covid pandemic, which is affecting her both personally and professionally. Wang realistically details the news from Wuhan and elsewhere – rising cases and deaths, border and business closures – and instills a sense of dread in readers who know very well what’s to come. Joan bitches: “Some government officials also believed it was important to inform and remind the American people where the virus really came from. So Chinese virus, Chinese virus, kung flu.” He’s starting to see “clips of Asians being attacked on the street and in the subway” online, being kicked, pushed around and spit on for wearing masks, and accused of bringing nothing but disease to the country.”

With tense prose, Wang deftly balances the many horrors of this pandemic alongside Joan’s candid, inner struggles. Reading the hospital scenes set in the spring of 2020, revisiting the devastating toll this virus has taken and continues to take, this reader was not good.

Throughout the novel, Joan’s sarcastic humor is sometimes punctuated by unexpected moments of tenderness. “If I could hold onto success,” he says, “it would be a beating heart.” Regarding her parents and other first- and second-wave Chinese immigrants, Joan says, “How is immigration usually defined: one death, one rebirth. … to put life back together.”

Like Joan herself, Wang’s narration is both laser-focused and multi-layered. She asks provocative questions about motherhood, maidenhood, belonging, and many definitions of “home.” What do we owe to our parents? our children? And are any of us okay?

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