China Mountain Zhang by McHugh, Maureen, 1992

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One of the big problems that I have with book reviewers out there, myself included I suppose, is not that they are unable to shuck off their own personal prejudices when writing reviews; its that they pretend that they are even able to shuck them off, then utterly fail to do so, or even to remain objective. I was reminded of this while reading this week's selection China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh. I have read a couple of first efforts this year. This one for example, and recently The Unselfish Gene by Robert Adams. As I finished this book and planned my review I was struck by how different the two works were. The Unselfish Gene was a lust tinged survival story set in a zombie infested world. China Mountain Zhang was a sensitive coming-of-age tale about a gay twenty-something American Born Chinese living in New York City in a third-world, barely emergent, communist United States. Radically different stories to be sure. I was very happy with the review I wrote for The Unselfish Gene, and I wondered to myself, even if I can do McHugh's book justice, would someone reading one review after the other on my web-site consider it absurd that I had given both such high marks? Mostly this whole rigmarole I put myself through is about self-discovery. But to tell the truth sometimes, times like this actually, I question whether I am gaining any headway.

China Mountain Zhang is set in a shabby, run down, overpopulated United States that several decades before succumbed to a socialist revolution called the "Great Cleansing Winds." Although the revolution was for the most part bloodless it started a period of strict disciplinarianism where citizen's lives were tightly controlled. Chinese culture is now the dominant force behind the world's efforts; China mandated policy in the United States and Chinese people control most if not all of the positions of power in government and business. The Great Cleansing Winds era was a period of extreme conservatism, and public morals were dictated by a stodgy and repressive regime. Capitalists and homosexuals were killed outright or enslaved in the years just after the revolution, though by the time of the novel most regretted the strict morals of that era. However, although the government had somewhat relaxed laws of extreme nature, gays were still imprisoned and occasionally executed for the mere fact that they were gay. Zhang Shen is a young gay construction manager in New York City. He was half-Chinese, half-Latino, but his parents had him engineered in utero so that he would appear pure Chinese. His appearance gave him advantage over all save native-born Chinese, and because of social constraints that allow such a thing, he kept secret his Latino heritage and his homosexuality.

The focus of the novel was on Zhang and a few other people in his loose circle of acquaintances as Zhang matured and decided what to do with his life. Everyone in the book had some problem that kept them from living full lives, but Zhang's path through life was the main focus. Zhang held back because of his secrets and even though he found himself in some pretty positive places as the story progressed, Zhang was nothing if not an island in the sea of society. This is a book about trying to belong to something in an inhospitable environment, where the main character ultimately realized that home really is where the heart is. Zhang's best opportunities to find a sense of belonging were obviously in New York City, where he found it easiest to be himself. I don't think that Zhang ever had things easy, which is why he tried to leave the city for a time to see what else was out there. But really, he could not have picked two more ill-suited places to go. First was Baffin Island in Northern Canada where he was an engineer in a facility that housed scientific teams that counted Belukah and Bowhead whales. Zhang did nothing there but close his eyes until his year commitment was done and he could go on to university. Next was in China itself where he received an excellent education, but where he lived in constant fear of being outed as gay. All gays lived in fear of discovery. His lover there, Haitao, was a bright, young tutor who took Zhang under his wing and helped him survive the first year of school. But in the months before Zhang arrived Haitao's former lover, an older administrator in the department of education, had been apprehended in a gay club and tortured. Haitao was worried that his name was on the governmentís lists, and he became so afraid of what the authorities would do to him that when it became obvious that they knew and were coming for him, he killed himself by jumping off of a building.

In a communal society such as this one, especially for someone who was gay and seemed to want to get into a "free-market" type of trade (meaning a trade that provided something other than government sponsored employment and cradle-to-the-grave care) Zhang tried to fit in by moving from place to place. He had a name that people consider odd because it belonged to a famous man from history (Sun Yat Sen, actually), and he was depressed and somewhat apathetic. But still, he was trying to fit in and never really stopped trying. So were many of the other characters in the book, but most of them were a bit ahead of Zhang because they had something else in their lives; a job, a love, a home, a commune, a family...Something else that Zhang did not. But Zhang managed the pitfalls and for the most part refrained from self-pity and in the end discovered his own purpose. It was a hard road getting there though, and what probably really did it for Zhang was learning some Daoist teachings from his instructors. After running up against a few big problems conceptualizing how to use an architectural computer that was programmed with Daoist thought, Zhang is told:

Woo Eubong glances over my shoulder. "You are a stubborn man," she says.

I shrug, not knowing what she refers to.

"You aren't using the system, you're staying in your own head. You have the manipulative skills but not the storage capacity."

I still don't know exactly what she's talking about.

She sighs. "Words don't really explain what you should be doing, you just have to do it, then you'll know. Dao kedao, feichang dao." The first line of the Dao De Ching, roughly translated, means that "The way that can be spoken is not the way."

The characters in this novel were few, which made the book easy to follow. The three main characters were Zhang, a Russian named Alexi who lived on a commune on Mars with his daughter and a woman named Martene, and San Xiang, the daughter of Zhang's boss in the first part of the book. Zhang's boss recognized intelligence and potential in Zhang so he forced Zhang to date his daughter, an ugly and deformed but sweet, kind and pathologically innocent young woman who was completely out of her league romantically even with a gay man. Xiang's father had been exiled from China and had used up the money to fix Xiang's deformities trying to buy influence to get back to China. He thought that Zhang would one day go to China to study, and that he might bootstrap onto him and get back home that way. Xiang never knew that Zhang was gay until the end of the book when Zhang found the courage to openly tell her, and she always wondered if it was her face that kept him from falling in love with her. Eventually she got the corrective procedure on her own, and became so beautiful that men threw themselves at her. Right after the procedure she met a white man named Bobby who seemed kind at first but beat her and raped her on their first date. One of the problems that I had with the book was that McHugh just dropped Xiang's story for good after she escaped from Bobby's apartment. I wondered at first if she was using Xiang's tale to illustrate that changes from within are the only true path to happiness, and changes to appearances generally cause new problems and do not resolve old ones. There may be something to that, but now that I have had some time to digest I think what McHugh was saying was that life is a process where there are no goals (well, except for death, perhaps). Xiang just happened to be in a different place in life, and not necessarily a "better" one after her facial surgery. The entire tale is so rooted in the reality of the human condition that I'm pretty sure that is what she meant, but she was also saying that even if goals are illusory and the achievement of them really fixes nothing, it is possible to build up slowly in attempt to realize a dream, and that in actually doing that happiness may be found. It's all really quite profound, actually, and I think that this makes China Mountain Zhang one of the most mature and realistic coming-of-age tales out there.

There was one other area of failure here, though the issues were presented so subtly that I'm still on the fence about it. After the Great Cleansing Winds the United States fell into a great slump, and at the time of the story it had only started to work its way out. Society was still in a state of great flux as Americans struggled to realize what it meant to be communist and socialist, and because of the focus on internal issues just about everything else went to pot. Nothing worked very well anywhere; for example, computer networks were a nightmare of connectivity problems, buildings were falling apart, nobody owned a car, public transportation was gritty, messy and sometimes dangerous, nobody had a good job, everybody was broke, nobody was fulfilled, society was a repressive nightmare, people were exiled to Mars or killed for imagined "crimes" against society, and so on. But as the story progressed things kind of loosened up a bit. Zhang came into more money, as an engineer he was able to fix some problems in the buildings he lived in, communes started to spread and they became sustainable (GOD, I hate that word!). In the end Zhang even started a business that was going to succeed. It felt like McHugh was trying to analogize between Zhang's coming-of-age and society's coming-of-age, and while the twenty-first century world that Zhang lived in was very deeply described and easily believable, McHugh really failed to transform society in the end. Instead Zhang made great strides that put him far past where American society was, but before the book was complete I wondered just how much he was going to be able to do to help society. Certainly not a depressing ending, but like with Xiang's story, McHugh leaves the reader dangling there without little resolution. Zhang does encounter a sign in a subway station twice - once early in the book when he is confused, and once later when he has not only figured out what he wants, but what he doesn't want. It's an advertisement for a church that begs him to "seek what he has lost." In the years before the sign would have been illegal, as religion was outlawed. But with the relaxed attitude of the Chinese regime the churches had started to become operate publicly again. I was pretty sure that sign was placed there by McHugh as an indication that life would normalize and American values would one day soon return: Or at least something like them. But if that was the point, then the rest of the text for the most part failed to support it. Perhaps a little bit more book would have been better here. Still, as a first effort this book was a mighty success. Hmmm. Seems I said the exact same thing about that zombie book!

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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