China Mountain Zhang, All That Man Is, The Vanishing Half
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
This book is set in a world where China is the dominant power, both economically and culturally. The US, meanwhile, is subservient to China, having apparently undergone a protracted and violent Communist revolution, followed by something similar to China’s cultural revolution known as the “Cleansing Winds Campaign.” Slightly frustratingly perhaps, we don’t find out too much about this history. The eponymous main character dreams of one day being able to work in China, which is only open to him because he can pass as Chinese (whilst Chinese society is far more technologically sophisticated than elsewhere, this merely seems to have reinforced a sense that their culture is superior to that of other races - hence the tendency to discriminate against non-Chinese). He is also gay, which is more problematic because homosexuality is illegal in China.
After following Zhang for a while, the book switches focus to a number of other characters, including a kite flyer (who’s neurally linked to her kite) and two colonists on Mars, before Zhang makes a reappearance later on. These episodes are not particularly strongly linked in terms of plot. Instead, the book aims to provide a composite or “mosaic” portrait of this world through a series of “snapshots” from the lives of various different ordinary people. As such, it’s quite a stark contrast to the majority of sci-fi novels where more often than not, the main characters are somehow “special” and play some kind of pivotal role in changing the world they live in. Here, the characters are just too busy trying to survive and make their way in an imperfect world, which they generally feel powerless to change. If you prefer your sci-fi served more conventionally, based around a strong plot and momentous events etc, this won’t be your thing. But it worked for me - partly because it is so different in approach from other novels and partly because of the author’s skill in making you empathise with her characters.
All That Man Is by David Szalay
Although marketed as a novel, "All That Man Is" consists of loosely connected, medium-length short stories, each told from the point of a view of a different male character at a different stage of his life (we start with young men and proceed through to old age - and the setting is the contemporary UK and Europe, with various different nationalities involved). On the face of it, it shouldn’t have worked at all - many of the protagonists are not terribly sympathetic (but stick with it, they’re not uniformly dislikeable) and overall, a rather unflattering (but unflinchingly honest) portrayal of the male species emerges. On top of which, there is no unifying plot to speak of. So many of the things that normally keep you reading other books are totally absent here (it’s almost as if the author had set out to make his task as difficult as possible).
And yet he manages to take you inside his characters’ heads so quickly and effectively that the book somehow succeeds in holding your attention - and once I’d got into it, I found it hard to put down. Despite the lack of unifying plot, most of the stories are sufficiently long to allow for “things to happen” - the action is just on a smaller scale than we’re generally used to in the usual novel format (but then, that is what most of our lives are like, if we’re honest about it). There are also thematic connections between the stories - so rather like China Mountain Zhang, what you end up with is a sort of “composite portrait” - in this case of the (male) human condition in the early 21st century. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is insightful and (for me at least) unexpectedly gripping (won't be everyone's cup of tea though).
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This novel is about twin African American sisters who are sufficiently light skinned to pass as white. One of them decides to adopt a white identity, moving away from the area and marrying her white boss; the other doesn’t. It’s had lots of (deservedly) positive reviews, so what can I add? Well, some of the reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere seem to have had a problem with the LGBTQ subplot, involving the daughter of the twin who stays behind. I didn’t - on the contrary, I felt it gave an extra dimension to the novel’s exploration of identity issues. It was also a somewhat risky move in the sense that it could easily have come across as if the author said to herself: “Hmmm, I’ve got two ethnic minority characters (tick), now who else can I drop into the mix? Oh yes, let’s have a subplot involving a trans character too (tick).” But I felt the author rose to the challenge of making it come across as entirely natural and explicable by reference to the daughter’s background and upbringing. So I’ve got no hesitation in recommending it. And the “passing for white” aspects of it reminded me a little of the “passing for Chinese” aspects of “China Mountain Zhang” (see above).
Posted by Paul Samael. Posted In : Book reviews