Sour Heart, the tremendous debut story collection by Jenny Zhang, is structured as a theme and variations, the theme being first-generation Chinese American daughters living in New York City. Each of its six narrators, speaking from a grown-up present, is a tilted mirror for the others. They are, at different times, spoiled darlings, neglected sidekicks, conflicted sisters, bored students, and witnesses to their parents’ marital and extramarital loves and abuses. Zhang gives us an early clue what she’s up to: “There was a version of you,” one of her narrators reflects to herself, “that was too selfish and there was one where you weren’t selfish enough and you were constantly waking up from one into the other and that was why you weren’t sure if you were looking down at yourself or you were looking up…”
Not incidentally, many of the stories end with characters levitating or hovering or floating in water or dreaming. They come of age in a way that is at once acutely individual and mythically communal. I couldn’t help returning to the fact that Sour Heart marks the launch of Lenny, a book imprint curated by Lena Dunham, whose Girls character Hannah Horvath notoriously declares herself, if not the voice of her generation, a voice of a generation. Sour Heart feels a bit like Girls at its best: a profane and sensitive female bildungsroman filtered through several interlaced perspectives. It affirms Dunham’s interest in flawed young women discovering who they are, as well as her penchant for a kind of urban lyricism. Perhaps most emphatically, the book establishes that for all her reputation as a cultural lightning rod, Dunham has pretty uncontroversial good taste.
Zhang has worked loose a collective voice from the particular absurdities and sorrows of being a Chinese immigrant in the United States in the ’90s. Her warmly protean fiction is an appeal to empathy based on the fluid lines between past and present, mother and daughter, schoolgirl and friend: “No one had it in them to have a heart for anyone, not even themselves, or at least, not the selves they once were that other people still had to be.”
If this all sounds a bit wispy and plangent, rest assured that Sour Heart is also disgusting. In an interview, Zhang admitted to channeling some of Philip Roth’s obsession with bodily secretions, though her scatological lightshows feel all her own. Here’s just part of the book’s second sentence, which sprints back and forth with the manic logorrhea of a kid who’s got to go:
“Back then, if one of us had to take a big dump, we would try to hold it in and run across the street to the bathroom in the Amoco station, which was often slippery from the neighborhood hoodlums who used it and sprayed their pee everywhere, and if more than one of us felt the stirrings of a major shit declaring its intention to see the world beyond our buttholes, then we were in trouble because it meant someone had to use our perpetually clogged toilet, which wasn’t capable of handling anything more than mice pellets, and we would have to dip into our supply of old toothbrushes and chopsticks to mash our king-sized shits into smaller pieces…”
Zhang’s characters can be invigoratingly, vulgarly contemptuous of their new home. One student rolls her eyes when the class recites what she calls “the Oath-to-Lick-America’s-Balls-Even-Though-They’re-Dirty-in-Order-to Certify-That-America’s-Wonderful-and-Tolerant-Even-Though-It’s-Not.” The United States may represent possibility, but it brims, too, with pain, privation, and the kind of white people “who would never consider moving the continent of Asia to the center of the map or redrawing the continents to scale so that South America became the emaciated drumstick dangling off the shriveled forefinger of the withered arthritic hand of North America that it really was.” As a genre, immigrant literature often seems to demand that characters act grateful upon entering the rags-to-riches national pipeline. They can now access the American dream! But Sour Heart sets the “model minority” myth on fire. I cannot overstate how satisfying it is to hear such maximalist obscenity gushing from Asian American women, who are rarely afforded the luxury of coarseness when they appear in pop culture. It’s not that Zhang’s characters are tough-talking rebellious “types,” but simply that they’re full of all the humanity that real people possess.
That realism—call it humanistic indecency?—suffuses Sour Heart in other respects. Zhang does not shrink from the horrific details of the Cultural Revolution (especially in her longest story, the wrenching “Our Mothers Before Them”). Her lanky sentences give the impression of authenticity and spontaneity, as well as a restlessness that moves ever ahead. “How strange it is to return to a place where my childish notions of freedom are everywhere to be found—in my journals and my doodles and the corners of the room where I sat fuming for hours, counting down the days until I could leave this place and start my real life,” one character says. Fiction about the immigrant experience is often fiction about powerlessness—people dropped into foreign contexts and left at the mercy of forces they don’t immediately understand. That’s one reason Zhang’s child’s-eye view succeeds so beautifully: Kids are frequently powerless, too, and characters’ coming-of-age can sync up with the arc of their integration into a new country.
Sour Heart maps various roads to agency, some of which depend on the stabilizing rock of family. The tension there is that parents, supportive and loving though they may be, can also impede your path to adulthood—and immigrant parents in particular can impinge on your dawning New Yorker–ness (a thwarting at once welcome and terrible). Zhang’s stories seethe with nuclear entanglements both poisonous and generative. A grandmother encourages her grandchildren to rely on her for everything. A failed singer, terrified of abandonment, sends her kid “into tears when I didn’t want to hear any more stories about her youth, the way she had suffered, how she married a man who would only continue to make her suffer.” The daughter in the story “Thank You, Crispina” remembers the nights she slept between her mom and dad. She realizes, maybe speaking of her alternate selves as well as of her parents: “I needed to be bound by their flesh before I could materialize.”
Some of Zhang’s alter egos and doppelgangers arrive at wisdom when they allow the bonds of family to slacken. Even then, the process is not morally straightforward. One narrator, “Jenny,” attends a summer camp at Stanford with money that depletes half of her parents’ yearly paycheck. When she returns home from college, the world is sharp and new. “Now that trying to become someone on my own is … just my ever-present reality… the days of resenting my parents for loving me too much and my brother for needing me too intensely were replaced with days of feeling bewildered by the prospect of finding some other identity besides ‘daughter’ or ‘sister,’ ” she discovers. For all the loose-limbed naturalness of sentences like that, the women in Sour Heart select their details carefully, aspiring to fineness and symmetry. Christina wakes up to find cockroaches encrusting her 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.” It is probably an overreach to blur Zhang, a Stanford graduate raised in New York City, with her mouthy, brilliant creations. But if she and her wreathe of shadow-selves are looking for labels, “writer” suits them all just fine.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. Lenny.