Seizing the Day

Sour Heart: Stories BY Jenny Zhang. Lenny. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Sour Heart: Stories

I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I’ve always felt that Saul Bellow did some of his finest work in the short story. They’re almost all novella-length, but even so, the limit imposed by the form provides a propitious counterforce to Bellow’s natural maximalism, and the results feel simultaneously epic and economical. I readily rank his Collected Stories up there with Herzog and Augie March at the apex of the Bellow canon—assuming, which I suppose I shouldn’t, that such a thing still exists. Moreover, Bellow’s stories often find him mining his early, formative experiences as the child of Lithuanian and Russian Jewish émigrés in Quebec, and then as a young immigrant himself. The famously autobiographical Augie,for example, opens with one of the great fibs in American literature: “I am an American, Chicago born.” In fact, the Bellows moved there when Saul, né Solomon, was nine years old. Stories like “Cousins,” “The Bellarosa Connection,” and “The Old System”—one of the best stories ever written about the mixed blessing of assimilation—paint indelible portraits of lives lived without safety or privacy, in hardscrabble, close-quartered, teeming worlds that have long since vanished. Or rather, Eastern European Jews have vanished from them. The worlds themselves of course are still there (or in the next neighborhood over), tough and teeming as they ever were.

It was Bellow I kept coming back to as I wrestled with Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, a collection of seven stories sprawling across three hundred mostly dazzling, occasionally enervatingpages. Zhang—whose family immigrated to the United States from Shanghai when she was very young—is the author of two poetry collections and a fair bit of nonfiction, including “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” a milestone essay published by BuzzFeedin 2015 in which Zhang critically dismantles the racism inherent in contemporary literary culture and describes the personal toll exacted on those who are perennially “coveted and hated at the same time.” Sour Heart is her first book of fiction and her major-press debut (published by a Random House imprint cofounded by Lena Dunham), making her the latest writer to ride a formidable internet presence from the indie fringe to the cultural mainstream, following the path blazed by writers such as Melissa Broder, Patricia Lockwood, Roxane Gay, and Tao Lin. Zhang’s work contributes to the literature of transplantation, biculturalism, and the first-generation American experience—the rich stuff of those Bellow stories—and at her best she refreshes and expands that canon for the twenty-first century and for a new generation of readers. This puts her in the vein (the, um, really broad vein) of Junot Díaz, Porochista Khakpour, Zadie Smith, Gary Shteyngart, and the aforementioned Lin and Gay. A few grievances notwithstanding (and I’ll get to those), there’s no question that Jenny Zhang is an important voice whose work demands attention and reckoning.

“Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house, the only difference being that the dealers in the one drug house were also the users and so more unpredictable, and in the other the dealers were never the users and so more shrewd—back in those days, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment so subpar that we woke up with flattened cockroaches in our bedsheets, sometimes three or four stuck on our elbows, and once I found fourteen of them pressed to my calves, and there was no beauty in shaking them off, though we strove for grace, swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas.”

That’s the first sentence of “We Love You Crispina,” the first story in the collection. The second sentence has an almost identical opening (“Back then,”) and describes the manifold indignities to which one is subjected when the need to take “king-sized shits” is pitted against the realities of slum plumbing. Like Ottessa Moshfegh, Zhang never lets an excretion go by unremarked (her arguably best-known poem is called “Comefarts”), but what’s interesting to me about these sentences is their insistence on pastness, which is emblematic of Sour Heart’s approach and puts me in mind of James Wood from the introduction to Bellow’s Collected: a “narrative prose . . . that tends toward the recollection of distant events and tends also toward a version of stream of consciousness,” resulting in “a jumble of different recollected details, a life-sown prose logging impressions with broken speed.” A Zhang narrator tends to be an adult character looking back at her childhood (albeit from a much briefer remove than a Bellow or a Díaz narrator, but hey, that’s millennials for you), hoping to create or interrogate a familial-historical record through introspection and memory work. She is signally concerned with the passage of time, and in determining what has been gained and what has been lost along the way.

Immediately after its scatological opening salvo, “We Love You Crispina” takes another jump backward: “Before Bushwick, we lived in East Flatbush,” where the Trinidadians were touchy about being mistaken for Dominicans even as they confused Christina’s family with “those asshole Korean kids who lived a little ways down from us and hung around outside their apartments wearing baseball caps with the bill unbent and pants that sagged around their knees, calling out whatever pitiful insults they could think of.”

Christina’s breathlessness is a formal choice rather than a character trait. In fact, every narrator sounds like this, and every story is narrated, always by a first-generation Chinese American woman, which sometimes left me wondering why Zhang didn’t treat herself to a unified alter ego (à la Díaz’s Yunior), but come to think of it, I’m often asked this question about my own short fiction and it never fails to royally piss me off (what they mean is, Why didn’t you write us the novel we really wanted?), so I’m not going to sit here and pay that bullshit forward.

Zhang’s deployment of multiple protagonists allows for a more varied exploration of her subject matter, and the result is a wide-angle portrait of the Chinese American community in and around New York City in the 1990s and 2000s. Christina, Lucy, Annie, Jenny, Mande, and Stacey are similar in many ways (ethnicity, class, polymorphous perversity), but it is the ways in which they are unalike (home life, disposition, luck) that end up making huge differences in their stories.

Annie, in “Our Mothers Before Them,” is preoccupied with her mother’s and uncle’s traumatic experiences during the Cultural Revolution, a time when “the young and rash were now the enforcers, the ones who dealt punishment.” Lucy, in “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” enjoys a bit more economic security than other kids she knows, yet even this modest privilege comes with outsize responsibility: “Our house was never just our house, it was a place that people in need passed through.” Lately this has meant forced quality time with a weird girl named Frangie, but “the worst was when my father’s old classmate from Shanghai brought his wife and daughter, Christina, who had a face so gloomy and teary that she made me think being ten was going to be the most sorrowful year of my life.” This is the same Christina who narrates the first (and the last) story, just one of many examples of these girls slipping half-noticed in and out of each other’s lives. As Lucy chafes against her family’s self-imposed obligation to be charitable, her relationship with Frangie grows exploitative and cruel. With the help of a prematurely sexualized classmate (herself an abused child), a crackpot plan is hatched for Lucy’s boyfriend Jason to “practice” sex on Frangie so he can get good at it for Lucy. At the risk of understatement, this one gets a little grim.

“The Evolution of My Brother” starts out promisingly, charting the ups and downs of a sibling relationship from early childhood to early adulthood, but it is saddled with a final movement that swerves gracelessly into the present tense (“I am home this week, visiting my family before I go back to my life in California”) and the pat platitudes of a bad personal essay: “Now that I am on my own, the days of resenting my parents for loving me too much and my brother for needing me too intensely have been replaced with the days of feeling bewildered by the prospect of finding some other identity besides ‘daughter’ or ‘sister.’” The narrative changeup occurs too late and is too conciliatory in tone to complicate the story; at the same time, it runs on too long to serve as a metafictional coda. (This narrator’s name happens to be Jenny.) The effect is simply deflating.

Which brings me around to my one serious reservation about Sour Heart: There are dozens of these deflating passages spread throughout its pages like construction zones on a highway. You get a sinking feeling whenever you hit one, and the only question is how long you’ll be stuck riding the brake. “Our Mothers Before Them,” with its historical sweep and seventy-page length, ought to be the crown jewel of the collection, but it comes off flabby and unfocused, at times borderline incoherent. I spent much of the first section trying to figure out whether it was June or July of 1966 and whether or not it was raining. (Ultimately the rain didn’t matter much, though the story kept insisting that it did.) In the second section, set in 1996, Annie describes her older brother as someone possessed of “unflinching maturity” who always “took me seriously and cared for me,” and then three pages later describes him as “confusing . . . my savior one moment, a menace the next.” I guess he flinched?

There’s a lot more of this sort of thing than there ought to be in a book as good as Sour Heart wants to be by a writer as talented as Zhang actually is. The collectionis flawed and uneven, but worth sticking with. The best stories in it“We Love You Crispina,” “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” “You Fell into the River and I Saved You!,” “My Days and Nights of Terror”—are extraordinary accomplishments, among the most exciting new fictions I’ve read in the past few years. Bursting with vitality and filth, love and rancor, they blow the doors of the possible wide open. Expect to find them in the Collected when it comes.

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the story collection Flings (Harper, 2014). This year he is a visiting writer at the University of Southern Mississippi.