Sideways Storytelling

Seeing the whole plan in your mind.If you’re the kind of reader who wants to know what happens next, then China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh might not be the book for you. This debut novel from 1992 has intriguing characters and a few strands of plot, but overall it operates a little more abstractly than most novels. The main character is a Daoist architect and as his graduating project he has to hold the entire plan of a house in his mind at once without getting lost in the details. It’s a pretty good analogy for how the book works.

Zhang is a young man living in New York City in a vastly changed America. It’s now a communist country under control of China; ethnic Chinese are at the top of most hierarchies, and American-born Chinese (or ABCs as they are called in the book) come next. Zhang looks like an ABC, but he had a Hispanic mother. Worse, for a repressive society with little tolerance for “deviant” behaviour, he is gay.

One of the main storylines in the book is Zhang’s struggle to get by in such a society, to maintain his dignity and sense of self. Zhang shows up as the viewpoint character of most of the book, although there are sections from the point of view of at least four other people. The longish chapters are labelled according to who is the subject, and almost every chapter takes place in a different locale.

In the first chapter, set in New York, his boss at a construction site tries to make him marry his daughter, San-xiang (the daughter was born with a facial deformity). When that doesn’t work out, Zhang loses his job and has to take a position at a research station on Baffin Island. Meanwhile, we get a chapter from the point of view of a kite-racer in New York City, kites at this point in the future being the augmented extension of the bodies of heavily modified athletes. We also start getting the story of a woman named Martine living on a commune on Mars, her struggle to get by, and later a chapter from the point of view of her new husband, Alexi. Later, when Zhang is at the Nanjing University, he gives tutoring lessons to Alexi long-distance (with a seven minute delay actually). Once he has graduated, Zhang returns to New York, and the book wraps up with him after a chapter from the point of view of San-xiang, who has had advanced reconstructive surgery but still struggles with her sense of self-worth.

My description makes it sound like a busy novel, and it is. The action moves around through various countries, characters come onstage and interact briefly with other people and then exit, and the point of it all seems to blur and vanish. What does any of it add up to?

Seeing the whole plan in your mindAt the simplest level, China Mountain Zhang is just a snapshot of what one possible future would look like. All current American posturing aside, Chinese dominance in the years ahead is quite probable, and McHugh gives us one version of what it would be like to live in such a world. This book got great reviews when it was published, and much of the praise centred around this very thing: here is a lived-in future, with a group of real people.

Personally I find this more than a little ironic. Realism in fiction has come through some strange places, such as stream of consciousness to get inside a character’s head and, most recently, postmodern works that shatter all consistency of tone and structure in order to convey the manic nature of contemporary life. It’s as if you can justify almost anything in the search for realism, and McHugh herself achieves her “realistic” effect with a mix of the oddly formal and the random.

Well, not precisely random. Any book is a totally artificial thing, and if something seems random it means something else (at least in book by a careful writer like McHugh). For example, Zhang meets San-xiang early in the book, then once later in the book, by accident and at a point where it’s clear that they will never meet again. This encounter can be read as society destroying the spark between them or two melancholy people not fighting strongly enough for their own happiness. Or any number of meanings. Just like real life, the events in this book are often unresolvably ambiguous.

This underlying uncertainty puts China Mountain Zhang distinctly at odds with other science fiction books. Genre works are often accused of simplifying the world, like good and evil in epic fantasy or progress marching ever forwards in science fiction. McHugh’s book simply doesn’t work like that. It’s like a Daoist artifact, encouraging reflection, existing, simply existing and nothing else.

An excellent novel, smartly written, and contrary to what might be the impression of all my critique-speak, it’s a joy to read.

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