Lan Samantha Chang’s third novel begins by bringing history to the table: “For thirty-five years, everyone supported Leo Chao’s restaurant.” The Wisconsin eatery is a family affair. Everyone assumes it will eventually be peacefully handed down to one of Leo’s three sons – but they overlook just how fraught and bloody inheritance can be. “In dark times,” Chang writes, with a characteristically cunning sense of slow-boiled foreboding, “there is really nothing like a good, steaming soup, and dumplings made from scratch.”
The Family Chao was not quite made from scratch. Some of the dough that forms its schemes and themes comes from The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, Chang’s story at first brings to mind another Dostoevsky-influenced state-of-America novel: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. In both books, the reader meets three adult siblings coming home for a family Christmas as the patriarch loses his grip on power. But where The Corrections sprawled and swelled, The Family Chao has a laser focus: one restaurant, one town, and one crime that will transform the family’s fortunes. As with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a novel that took its blueprint from Howards End, you get the sense that borrowing the bones of a classic has freed up the author to focus on making every interior detail as perfect as it can be.
One of the many pleasures of The Family Chao is the way the novel dramatises the gap between how a family wants to be seen, and its messier inner realities. The neon sign that greets new arrivals at the restaurant is “FINE CHAO”. (If the head of the family would only relax his grip on singularity, the place might be rebranded more appropriately as “FINE CHAOS”.) Inside, beyond the “small, shabby dining room”, we find a bulletin board covered with chaotic scraps of paper. The increasingly absent matriarch of the family, Winnie, has pinned up a list of foods that American customers prefer to be served. One is chop suey. “What is this?” her husband has written in the margin. “I don’t know,” Winnie replies. Amid a drama of family betrayal, Chang has created a wonderful comedy of American consumption. To quote a heading from one of the many short sections that make up the book, like small plates slowly filling our table: “The Fortune You Seek Is in Another Cookie.”
Chang’s prose moves with the unfussy ease of a shark through water – for the longest time you are just enjoying your swim, soaking up the story. Only midway through the book does it occur to you that a master hunter is at work: a writer cutting through the darker depths of what it means to be treated as an outsider in America. At the novel’s halfway point we are confronted with the words “THREE MONTHS LATER”. The central events on which the plot turns have taken place off stage, in an unlit space. Chang is more interested in consequences, and she has great fun unpicking the slightly breathless trial that occupies the final third of the book. One late chapter on the fate of the family is written as a student blog for a course on Writing for New Media. Chang, who is the programme director at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, starts out with the student’s bullet-pointed “personal goals”. These include “Use bullet points when possible”.
If the writer’s greatest fear is being misunderstood, the restaurateur’s true terror may be getting locked in the freezer room. That is just one culinary nightmare (I won’t spoil your meal) that creates this book’s atmosphere of laughter in the dark. Meat is everywhere in the novel: fresh, rotting, chopped, fried – and thrown, in one memorable scene, to a pack of dogs. Like crazed siblings, the animals fight over the scraps, unaware that the next meal might be them. In the background, a group of nuns protest. But the soul is no match for the stomach.
“Do you think I want this dog’s life?” Leo Chao asks one of his sons in a key moment. A man of presence, impatience and profanity, he believes in doing whatever American appetites require. Like a small-town version of Logan Roy, the patriarch in another drama about siblings squabbling over succession, Leo has “the authority of a man larger than he actually is”. He tells his most innocent son, a soulful virgin pre-med named James, that “we came to America to colonise the place for ourselves. That means spreading seed. Equal opportunity for fucking.” But however appalled the sons might be by their father’s perspectives, they continue to absorb elements of his character. You are what you eat, the novel seems to suggest. And you eat what your family, or your country, puts on the table.
“As far as parties are concerned,” Chang’s omniscient narrator tell us, “there are many ways to greatness. There’s greatness of style, of setting, of occasion, and of company.” The Family Chao has a little of all these ingredients – but even better, it arrives with something to say.