by Jenny Zhang
Published 2017 by Lenny
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399589386
By Noah Sanders
The main characters of the loosely connected stories in Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, are, each and all the young Chinese daughters of recent immigrants to New York City. They are all struggling, to various degrees, to make do in the new world they’ve arrived in. They do so without the presence, or influence of adults. Instead, these girls—nine and ten on average—have other kids in similar situations to depend on, to learn from about life lessons. From their parents they garner overbearing, co-dependent support, fear, and the trickle-down effects of the trauma of the past. From their peers they gain the basic foundations of life filtered through the skewed perspective of youth. In the grey area in between, Zhang manages to explore the struggles of young girls who are just grasping what struggle really is. She does so with a dark, biting humor that lays out the small tragedies and the even smaller triumphs that define the lives of these children.
The world of Sour Heart is not an especially pleasant one. Zhang’s New York is a desperately impoverished world. Families dig in dumpsters, apartments collapse, broken cars are pushed into rivers—it is a grim world, one where parents must sacrifice “everything” to make it suitable for those they’ve brought into it. And to do so, they must work two or three or more jobs to put measly scraps on the table. Sour Heart exists in the absent space between their children and them. Zhang’s cadre of young girls are given lives but lives but without standard forms of parental guidance. In “We Love You Crispina” the parents are loving to the point of including their daughter in the petty crimes they commit just to survive. In “Our Mothers Before Them” the parents are drunk and needy, demanding and damaged. These kids are told to “succeed,” as if the unknown outcome of their lives gives sound reason for their parents to flee China. They are asked do so without support, without parents, without anything but their youthful peers to give them meaning.
The parents in Sour Heart, though chronically absent, still pass along their influence. The traumas of growing up, and escaping Communist China, come through as, sometimes, nostalgic memories, but are racked with half-remembered pain and suffering. All of this gets, consciously or not, passed down to the next generations. “I was her receptacle,” the narrator of “Our Mothers Before Them” says of her mother, “and I permitted her to speak endlessly.” There is much talk of “sacrifice” in Sour Heart, and Zhang never allows for it to feel particularly selfless, or beneficial. It is instead, a necessity for survival, no matter the cost.
There is a pervasive, suitably childlike grossness in Sour Heart. Zhang’s characters rarely have set a toe into their teen years, and the curiosity, humor, and enjoyment found in the exploration of body fluids and body parts hasn’t dimmed a bit. There is more than enough descriptions of pooping, farting, and pissing as well as detailed descriptions of the smell of vaginas. The main character of “The Empty The Empty The Empty” spends an afternoon allowing her friend to examine her vagina. She describes the smell as a combination between her sandals and “these fried anchovies my parents ate.”
Zhang is a skilled portrayer of the kid’s point of view and the grossness, though often times overused, isn’t used in vain. The casual obsession with sexuality clashes with their maturity-lacking descriptions because these are little girls being pushed into adulthood without any real guidance. This becomes most apparent in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the collection’s best story, the narrator so convinced of her own perfection, so desperate for confirmation, that she allows herself, and her strange young friend Frangie, to be pulled into a particularly sad sexual scenario, authored by a girl just a tad older, a tad more experienced. As a storm crashes outside their small apartment empty of parental guidance, the narrator’s age and inexperience rears its head. She offers whispered promises of Cheez Doodles and shopping trips as she assists in the forced deflowering of Frangie.
It is difficult at times to call the ‘stories’ in Sour Heart ‘short.’ For the most part, these are borderline novellas, long, dense pieces of first-person narration. As good as Zhang is at capturing the voice of a child, it oftentimes feels like the same child, with a slightly different experience but a similar voice. The characters bleed together, and by the end of the book it’s a blur of petulance and fart descriptions. The length can work to her advantage; in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the page count gives Zhang time to build up our perception of the narrator, making her eventual turn all the more painful to experience. Mostly, the length of each story feels excessive and exuding of an atmosphere that becomes stale over the course of the book.
There is a sense in the length and the blurring of characters over time, that maybe we’re being asked to see the immigrant experience depicted here as a collective one. That each of these girls, different as they are, are living in the same world, dealing with the same issues, struggling just to survive. It’s a strong point Zhang’s writing often times highlights, but too often, it’s buried beneath the weight of so much.