My Good Son by Yang Huang; University of New Orleans Press; 304 pages; $18.95
Readers…tend to expect a narrative arc…some element of change…a “before” and an “after”—an epiphany….Life is lived in a much messier way.
—Yiyun Li, in an interview with Five Books
My Good Son is a novel that follows Mr Cai, a tailor in post-Tiananmen China, as he pushes his failing-to-launch 22-year-old son, Feng, toward a life Feng doesn’t want. Author Yang Huang, a mother of two boys, focuses on the masculine narrative, the ways a father loves his only son but also burdens him with expectations the son clearly avoids in pursuit of his own desires, while the feminine manifests either as background (the mother’s cooking) and obstacles (girlfriend troubles) or through Mr Cai’s interactions with a gay American man. By writing a male-centered narrative with a third-person point of view following Mr Cai, Huang reveals a father’s blindness to his son’s many imperfections, and when Mr Cai can’t ignore an issue, we see him work through his limited resources in attempts to solve his son’s problems, but sometimes that point of view isn’t close enough to engender empathy in the reader.
Because the novel follows Mr Cai, readers might feel distanced from not only the experiences of the women in the novel but also the men and the various plot points, which sometimes seem to have no logical motivation—until Mr Cai learns why the action is unfolding. The plain language of the novel and the occasional syntactic choice feels like he speaks Chinese translated into English; this writing approach, unlike the intimacy of female emotional discovery that blasts through the broken English in A Concise Chinese-English Diction for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, provides a tidiness and distance to Mr Cai’s emotions, more a statement than a deep feeling. For example, when visiting Jiao, the neighbor who passed her exams the first try and became a teacher, Mr Cai notices a poster of the Statue of Liberty. “Is this the idol of college women?” he asks (102). Jiao says she adores her, and then he replies, “Why not a young man’s picture?” The word order here—instead of “a picture of a young man”—consistently builds Mr Cai’s character, his Chinese voice. Additionally, Huang writes, “Mr Cai knew he shouldn’t pry, but knowing he may never have a private chance to find out what Jiao thought of Feng, he allowed himself.” The narration follows suit by using “private chance,” words we can hear Mr Cai saying, and then telling us he’s “allow[ing] himself” the opportunity.
Much of the novel centers around Mr Cai working to persuade a gay American named Jude to serve as the much-coveted fiscal sponsor so that Feng can get a visa to study in the US. Jude, who is out in China but not yet to his parents, seeks Mr Cai’s help in coming out to his father, whom Jude expects to disown him despite Mr Cai’s protestations that a father’s love is unconditional. Jude’s support for Feng, who often immaturely and selfishly yells at Jude, makes little sense when observed through Mr Cai’s eyes. As Yiyun Li said about logical plots, our lives are “much messier,” and My Good Son agrees by way of example—although eventually, the messiness of life does settle with some clarity to the actions.
While obsessing over ways to fix his son or to provide opportunities for him no matter the cost, Mr Cai sides with Feng even when he is an ungrateful brat. Mr Cai’s actions and responses might frustrate the reader, but both his journey and the theme of a father wanting a better life for his son are universals, if sometimes chaotic ones. It’s in this father’s journey that the novel shines—how the father grows as a parent, how he realizes and accepts certain truths about himself, about his son, about Jude’s American family, about life in China.
Mr Cai pressures his son to study constantly so that in his fourth and last attempt he can qualify for a university spot and eventually reach the pinnacle of status: studying in the United States. We watch the father proudly believe his “little emperor” son is capable—despite all evidence to the contrary—of becoming a great engineer. Sometimes, though, Mr Cai’s blindness might frustrate readers who clearly see Feng’s ineptness and bad behavior and long for Mr Cai to respond to reality. Parental pride motivates nearly every action of Mr Cai, and consequently his wife, even when Feng behaves in the most egregious of ways: ditching the woman he’s impregnated out of wedlock.
This pregnancy, along with other female-centered events like posing nude for an artist, provides some insight to the terrible lack of options and thus limited agency given to women in China in 1990. Mrs Cai, who cooks, cleans, and assists her husband in his tailoring business, works off the page to improve the situation for their son’s old girlfriend, but since we only “see” her through Mr Cai’s experiences, our view of her world—and those of the other women in the novel—is limited. This limited and male view, however, makes the novel feel more like an older read than a contemporary reflection or restorying of events from thirty years ago. The women, while not objectified, certainly live and function under an unstated oppressive male hierarchy, but their conditions and actions function simply as the backdrop for Mr Cai’s lived experiences given his laser focus on his son’s success.
The novel includes topics that today’s readers may need to see through a different lens in order to appreciate. For example, Mr Cai worries about his son’s strength because of his vegetarian diet. Feng subverts societal expectations and parental authority through food choices, while the father propagates myths around meat eating. The son’s quest for identity and individualism is one of the central tensions for the father. In Mr Cai, Huang creates a father whose gentle but persistent prodding—including appeal through superstitions—finally coaxes (or “gaslights” to some readers) Feng to eat meat the night before his university entrance exams. We have to interpret Mr Cai’s actions not as a passive-aggressive or controlling father—as a contemporary reader might—but as a loving parent who doesn’t know any other way to be. As these plot points appear rather than flow together, Mr Cai has to confront his own thoughts about the possibility his son, who he sees as having many similar attributes and mannerisms as Jude, is also gay. Can Mr Cai follow his own advice about unconditionally loving his son no matter what? This is the central question Huang explores.
Readers might also harbor twenty-first-century mores, particular the partisan American ones, about abortion, when the novel is clearly showing us a view from a post-Tiananmen China. Abortion is not only the one viable solution to out-of-wedlock pregnancy at a time when premarital sex is outlawed but also plainly omnipresent given a one-child national policy. Huang challenges readers to see events unfold as they would have thirty years ago, without any subtext or commentary readers might expect in a book published in 2021.