Shelf LifeA monthly books column that considers works of fiction and nonfiction that speak past their publication dates—because good books don’t go bad.  

Pity the protagonists of old-fashioned novels—just about everything seems to happen to them. They have an uncanny knack for fortune and tragedy alike, for auspicious birthrights and absent parents and the dubious ministrations of strangers. Yet “the only standard of real importance,” writes Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, is agency—the choices made in the face of circumstance. “Not only is the novel inherently political,” Smiley argues, “it is also inherently liberal—that is, it embraces the rights and obligations of individualism.” What has happened to a character matters less than what she makes of that happening, what has been done to her—however generous, however cruel—matters less than what she chooses to do.

Esmé Weijun Wang’s novel The Border of Paradise begins with David Nowak, the troubled son of a wealthy family. What has happened to him is gently called “neuroses,” and this condition prevents him from taking his place as the scion of the family business. “The myth of the Nowak Piano Company—a Polish immigrant arriving in America with nothing but a Bible, a tuning fork, and a knife!” David thinks. “The notion of an affordable, but still beautiful piano! The immigrant’s ingenuity and his consequent success as a piano maker in an inhospitable land!—this tale was as essential to our family as the story of the birth of Christ.”

Like the story of the birth of Christ, The Border of Paradise is full of sin and redemption, of parable and fable, of cleansing fire and corrupting temptation. Eighteen years old, ostracized, and grieving his father’s death, David sells the Nowak Piano Company for a fortune and follows an acquaintance to Taiwan. On the other side of the world, he falls for a madame’s forthright daughter, Jia-Hui, and she—for her own reasons—asks to be taken to America, to marry him.

“Is this the moment when my fate could have gone in a different direction?” Jia-Hui asks, in a parenthetical. “Or had the doors already closed behind me?” These slim and bent parentheses contain the novel’s urgent, unanswerable thesis. What is inherited? asks Wang. What is inescapable? For her characters, the abstraction of fate wears everyday guises: familial expectation, emigration, a religious calling, a mental disease. Of his madness, David recalls: “The doctors said, Try this, try that, try this, never, You’re a lunatic for life, so that every time it came up it was a surprise.”

Try, try again: the one and only instruction for the American dream. The driving force behind the old archetype of the immigration narrative is the belief that one can change one’s fate by changing one’s place, that America—like the novel—is a country where the doors never close, before or behind. The future lies flung open. Every direction is a possibility.

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But fate, in The Border of Paradise, can’t always be outrun. The book opens with David’s suicide, and its gruesome revelation is just a hint of the horrors to come for what remains of the Nowak clan: Jia-Hui, whose husband renamed her Daisy—the same name as the woman loved by that great fictional avatar of the fictional American dream—and their children, William and Gillian. The trio lives where David left them, in an isolated house in the California wilderness, miles from the nearest town and thousands of miles from either strand of their bloodline. But blood is all they have: the children don’t go to school and have no relationships outside their family. William cleaves to this life, his mother’s trusting acolyte, but Gillian grows claustrophobic. Their fate—raised among ancient forests at the far edge of the continent—feels like freedom to the son. To the daughter: imprisonment.

When Gillian adopts a stray dog found wandering in the woods, she gives the creature a strangely human name. “Sarah is on a long rope tied around a post,” the girl thinks. “Sarah is a hopeless creature.” But Gillian knows the torment of a life spent staked and chained, and she lets the dog go. Gillian does what her mother, wracked by grief and fear, cannot. “[G]olden sons remain their mothers’ flesh long after they’ve grown,” Jia-Hui says, of William’s closeness to her. “This is truest for immigrants, who have no homes either in country or by blood; immigrants only have the homes that they create.” Jia-Hui shares the language, food, and traditions of her homeland with the American-born children, but she also passes down her terror of the strange country around them, its judgments and its threats. If the Nowak legacy was too weighty for David to bear, William and Gillian’s inheritance is even heavier: they risk being crushed beneath it.

“I’ve been returning to The Confessions more than to the Bible these days,” David says, before his death, “but it’s become difficult to understand what I mean to accomplish through any style of confession.” Each section of The Border of Paradise but the last is narrated in the first person; every character takes a turn in the confession booth. David’s madness; Jia-Hui’s fanaticism; William’s brutal confusion; Gillian’s desperation—we see them now from the inside, now from the out. We leave a character’s mind full of sympathy and find a stranger upon returning, her actions grown terrifying and strange. One character’s survival becomes another’s nightmare; one character’s surety is another’s hallucination.

These limits of knowing are writ large in Jia-Hui’s chapters, which are given to the reader “in translation.” Some things, however, are hard to translate: Mandarin characters and Taiwanese words dot the text. In dialogue spoken by David or his mother or strangers on the street, blank spaces indicate the English words Jia-Hui doesn’t understand. Her fear of loneliness—for which she’ll find a terrible solution—is literalized in these empty lines. In The Border of Paradise, no one is fluent enough to overcome their isolation. “I am confident this is where the true sorrow—sorrow? I lack the correct word—began,” David says, “when I learned that it is possible for I hurt, I hurt, I hurt, I hurt to be my only heartbeat.”

Wang’s book is structured like a boomerang; the burden of narration travels down one branch of the family tree and back up another. In the novel’s final section, little frissons of connection register like electric shocks: a casual acquaintance is intimately known, a minor character holds major revelations. This pronged, modern structure grounds the book’s more gothic elements, reminding characters and reader alike of the world beyond the woods.

But where the lines collide, in the teenage bodies of William and Gillian, an ancient drama plays out. Its actors are familiar figures—mother and children, brother and sister—but the characters stand in for a vaster struggle, between the vagaries of fate and the agonies of choice. The anticipation hinges: what will be done to William and Gillian, fairy-tale children lost in the woods? And what will they do?

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In Lydia Peelle’s The Midnight Cool, Charles McLaughlin is just a little older and far poorer than William and Gillian, but he’s a lot more confident in what he can—and surely will!—achieve in the burgeoning world of 1916 Tennessee. “Charles was eighteen and certain of one truth,” Peelle writes, “that he would, as his mother promised years ago, someday rise up and win the bread of life.” Such is his rightful inheritance, Charles believes: before her early death, his mother told him so, over and over. Charles’s father, she said, had been a wealthy gentleman with a high-class bloodline; he had loved her and married her and died tragically—a streetcar accident—just before Charles’s birth. His wealthy, high-class family, disapproving of wife and newborn, had kept them from the riches and status they deserved, but blood—Charles’s mother assured him—would win out.

It is not as obvious to Charles as it is to you that this story is a lie, a tall tale toward which a poor boy might aspire. His sense of self rests on that buried bloodline and the downright unfairness of its absence, both for him and for his mother, once promised a fortune and buried in a pauper’s grave. “All that was left of it,” he thinks, of her loving and singular life, “all of it, was grass.” But as grieved as he is over this wrong, Charles is just as sure that someday it will be rectified. “This is America,” he tells a friend. “You, me, anybody can do it… A man’s just got to write his own story.”

As a kid, the orphaned Charles is taken in by Billy Monday, a wise-cracking Irish immigrant and swindler. The men make a living trading damaged goods for slightly less damaged goods, conning locals and moving on. On good days, they trade horses or mules, whose age or illness or flaws they cover up: painting gray coats black, filing worn teeth into straightness, drugging the animals up into liveliness or down into calm. They never lie—Billy won’t allow it—but they manage to bend the truth into some pretty shapes along the way. Charles and Billy are bound to each other by a connection stronger than blood: care, respect, affection, the long companionship of a decade spent together. But it’s what they lack—family; respectability; money, of course—that circles like a lasso, threatening capture.

On a single fateful—or choice-filled—day in Richfield, Charles falls in love with a wealthy girl named Catherine Hatcher, and the men find themselves possessed of a beautiful, murderous, untamable horse called The Midnight Cool. Their own tricks have been used against them: the horse was heavily sedated when Charles, impulsive and ambitious, bought her from Leland Hatcher, Catherine’s father. “Charles was still green enough to think that rich men achieved their station in life because they deserved it,” Billy says, of his protégé’s misguided belief in Leland’s decency.

Billy knows better, though he isn’t wholly immune to some other yarns told by his adopted home. “Four hundred blessed bucks out of nearly nothing,” he thinks, after an early and auspicious trade. “That was the inalienable truth that Billy had learned about America. Here in the land of plenty you could live mighty well off the trash.” And it’s true that he lives better than he would have on the small, storm-battered island he left at 14. Billy changed his name upon arriving in America, dropping the Irish O’Maonlai for Monday—the beginning of the work week, a fresh start, a day all effort and promise.

But not everything can be changed so easily: what has been done to someone cannot always be overcome by force of will, by a country’s supposed largesse. Billy learned this long ago, in the pitch-black of a coal mine and the wake of broken promises, and Charles learns it too, bit by bit: from Gus, the brain-damaged son of an auctioneer, dropped on his head as a baby; from the stable-boy Twitch, as dirt-poor as Charles but lacking his smooth tongue and talent; from Ernestine, a medium telling the living whatever they need to hear from the dead; and from Catherine, consumed with fury at all she has inherited—an overbearing father, a woman’s body—that keeps her from joining her brother on the front lines of Europe’s war.

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“I still think that statue’s a farce,” Catherine says, of the monument in New York’s harbor. “Liberty. My mother didn’t have it. I don’t. No woman does.” Her patriotism is skeptical, burning but clear-eyed, not naïve like Charles’s nor souring into racist nationalism like Twitch’s and Leland’s and so many others. “Kuntz once said to me that in America it don’t matter where a man comes from,” Charles says, late in the novel, his naïvete fading. “But look what happened to poor Kuntz. Run out of town for no reason but the fact of where he came from.”

Charles gets a proper job and starts making real money; America enters the war. Man and country alike try to live up to the story they’ve told themselves about themselves: a worthy gentleman; the world’s exemplar. “Tell a story enough times, it don’t matter that it’s a bald-faced lie,” a shopkeeper once said to Billy—but Billy doesn’t lie, remember, no matter how he might elide certain precarious truths. As the novel’s aching conclusion nears, Charles has to decide whether he too hews to this code, its lessons embedded in him as surely as if it were inherited. His father might have been (why not?) the wealthy, upper-crust figure of his fantasy, but it’s Billy Monday who raised and made him.

“[I]f you look at a novel or a democracy one way, it is the tale of one person; if you look at it another way, it is a tale of a group,” writes Smiley. The tale itself is singular, but the rivers that fill it intermingle. Inherited? Perhaps. Inescapable? Perhaps not. Billy became William Monday; Jia-Hui became Daisy Nowak; names and lives are changed through both choice and force. (It makes all the difference in the world, of course, which is which.) Like The Border of Paradise, The Midnight Cool twists and buckles the myth of the American dream—a dream being something sprung from our unconscious bodies, both of us and apart. We make it happen and it happens to us; we interpret or we shrug off, waking.

“What do they say about an old mule, Charlie boy?” Billy says. “‘No hope of progeny, no pride of posterity.’ A mule’s got nothing but his own life to prove himself by. A man’s not much better off than a mule, in the end. A man’s got his lifetime. No more and no less.” Every mule is the end of his bloodline, but blood isn’t everything in the end. Our lives are composed of both: what we do, what is done to us. What a terrible thing to reckon with, either way, and what a blessing. We are powerless; we are responsible.

“You think that’s true?” Charles asks, and Billy replies: “I reckon that’s the beauty and the shame of it, all at once.”