Monday, October 5, 2020
October 5, 2020: Recent Reads: How Much of These Hills is Gold
[Last October I had a lot of fun sharing and AmericanStudying some of my recent reads, and it brought out great responses and nominations for a crowd-sourced weekend post. So this year I wanted to do the same, and would love to hear what you’ve been reading for another weekend list!]
On necessary darkness, literary legacies, and the optimism of recovery and resistance.
As part of that series last year, I highlighted a novel—Tommy Orange’s stunning There There (2018)—which thoroughly and importantly challenged my critical optimism. I don’t know that I’ll ever read another American novel that does so more potently, but the best novel I’ve read so far this year is at the very least a close contender. C. Pam Zhang’s rightly acclaimed debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold (2020) is a masterpiece of revisionist historical fiction in the best sense of every word in that phrase, opening up the experiences of Chinese Americans (and all Americans) in the mid-19th century American West with a combination of lyricism and raw realism that felt genuinely unique (no easy feat in a novel published in 2020). As this excellent NPR review notes, Zhang’s novel is profoundly pessimistic, with every moment and event adding one more layer to what the reviewer calls “a perpetual state of longing and disappointment.” That darkness feels just as earned, and just as necessary, as does Orange’s, but there’s no getting around the fact that it makes Zhang’s book a painful read (if, again, a consistently lyrical and beautiful one).
As with any great novel, however, there are many more layers to How Much than its tones, and I wanted to highlight two in particular here. That NPR reviewer also notes the book’s clear echoes of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), as Zhang’s novel likewise features children (in this case the siblings Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11 respectively) on a quest to bury a deceased parent (their father, known by the Mandarin “Ba”) whose voice and body alike often dominate the novel as fully as did Addie Bundren’s in Faulkner’s book. Of course Faulkner looms large for any subsequent American novelist, but I would argue that Zhang’s location of her novel in the legacy of Dying is more specific and more pointed than that. As my college friend and wonderful fellow AmericanStudier Heidi Kim argues in a chapter of her book Invisible Subjects (2016), “The Foreign Faulkner: The Mississippi Chinese in Faulkner’s South,” that “Faulkner makes use of the Chinese at pivotal moments to discuss the intrusion and socioeconomic containment of a foreign presence.” (A few decades earlier, Charles Chesnutt does the same with a singular Chinese American figure in a pivotal early chapter in The Marrow of Tradition ). But I think Heidi would agree with me that Faulkner isn’t much interested in the Chinese American community on its own terms, and so Zhang’s novel can be seen as both an extension of and yet a challenge to this element of his literary legacy.
Much of the darkness of Zhang’s book is intertwined with that idea of Chinese Americans as “a foreign presence”: the novel’s epigraph is “This land is not your land,” and even though in the first chapter Lucy recalls her father telling her “You remember you belong to this place as much as anybody,” it feels that the exclusionary narrative and its destructive effects often dominate Lucy and Sam’s experiences. I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying in any way to minimize that bracingly dark and painful side to Zhang’s novel, which again offers an important counterpoint for critical optimists like myself. But you know me well enough to know that I have to end on a more optimistic note, and it’s this: the writing and existence of Zhang’s novel, to me, represents a potent form of both recovery and resistance. That is, by telling the story of Chinese Americans in this mid-19th century America, Zhang at the same time implicitly but crucially pushes back on any narrative that seeks to exclude that community from American histories, stories, identities. A book doesn’t need a happy ending (and Zhang’s book certainly doesn’t offer one) to help us move toward a more perfect union, and to my mind this book is a vital example of how historical fiction can do just that.
Next recent read tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Recent reads you’d share for the weekend post?