Look! There’s the dog, right on the cover!

Last week, while I was driving to yoga, the dog got out. Not my dog, but the dog in the audiobook I was listening to, “The Family Chao,” by Lan Samantha Chang. This was a problem. I stared accusingly at the dashboard of my car, through which the audiobook app was playing, as if it were responsible. Now how am I going to go in there and erase my mind of distractions and leave it all on the mat, etc., with this dog on the loose God knows where?

(Note: the following contains spoilers but not ones that will actually ruin the book for you. To prove it, read any review, none of them even mention the dog.)

Thankfully my own dog was safe at home in his favored spot atop the back of the couch. Altitude means a lot to a dachshund. But poor, fictional Alf, a French bulldog belonging to the Chinese-American owners of a restaurant in small-town Wisconsin, was padding off into a snowstorm, his tracks covered by fluffy flakes as soon as they were made. As I turned off the car, other characters in the book were reassuring James Chao that the dog knew his way home and that everything would be fine.

James was not so sure, nor was I. 

When something like this happens in a book, my nearly superhuman ability to suspend disbelief becomes something of a problem. I am at the mercy of the author, just as I am at the mercy of the gods in real life, and as this event occurred not very far into the book, I had not yet been able to determine what kind of god this Lan Samantha Chang actually is. Is she a merciful god or a cruel god? Would she sacrifice a dog to the need for literary gravitas? This is her fourth book, but I haven’t read the earlier ones so no help there. Apparently she is the head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, practically a gravitas factory. That doesn’t bode well.

Deaths in a novel undoubtedly get it taken more seriously by readers and reviewers, and a dog is on the low-stakes end of what can be sacrificed in this campaign. There’s nothing to up the fictional ante like killing a toddler. I will never in two million years enjoy a book like, oh my God, I’m blocking the name, but it’s Norwegian. A little kid — not a toddler, but definitely too young to be left home alone — is left alone by his single mother in the dead of winter. And guess what? He freezes to death in their driveway! Here we have not only dead kid, but mother’s fault. A surefire formula for greatness. In fact, I was forced to read this book because other people on a prize committee thought it might very well be the very best book of the whole year. I will say right now that for me such a plotline makes such a designation quite impossible. 

This is the book where the kid freezes to death, believe it or not.

So now in addition to everything else that is preventing me from relaxation and concentration, I have a dog face floating behind my eyes during savasana, and far from banishing this vision so I can feel gratitude for my practice and absorb its benefits, I notice that my subconscious has sent up the wrong breed of dog, one with floppy ears. That’s no French bulldog, dummy. By this time we’re pressing our thumb knuckles to the seat of intuition between our eyebrows and I’ve blown the whole thing. 

For me, the uncontrollability of fictional plots brings out primitive urges like those that led ancient people to sacrifice sheep to influence their deity. (Now, perhaps, you’ll take this essay seriously — it has dead sheep in it!) Yet I know that no offering or ceremony is going to affect the fate of this dog. With fiction, you don’t even have the illusion of control or free will, as in real life. Whatever has happened to Alf is set in stone.

But Lan Samantha Chang has, in her wisdom, completely dropped the matter for several chapters so she can focus on the Brothers Karamazov-type plot she has arranged for her human characters, brimming with simmering familial rivalries and hatreds, purloined fortunes, star-crossed lovers, and extremely appetizing Chinese food, all of which in my mind is now taking a backseat to the dog problem. Listening to the book as I prepare an aspirational stir-fry, I actually yell at my phone. “C’mon, lady!”

But then turns out that the temporary back-burnering of developments re: Alf may be intentional, because what happens next is simply beyond belief. THEY ACCIDENTALLY EAT THE DOG. Some people in their neighborhood who have hated them for years bring a package of “mutton” for them to cook at their annual neighborhood Christmas party, and they unquestioningly toss it right in the pot. Midway through the meal, someone suggests the stew is made of dogmeat. Given the lost dog, this charge has legs. Puking and infamy ensue. 

Well, at least I now have a much better idea what kind of god this author is. My hopes for everyone in the book dim substantially.

Aside from the dog-eating, this Christmas party is also the prelude to a murder, in this case killing a human character so repugnant that for me, as for the characters in the book, his death is completely angst-free. Alf’s fate becomes a major element of the racist dialogue that floods the internet and the courtroom as the murder trial of one of the dead guy’s sons goes forward. While I’m glad that Alf’s plot line hasn’t been dropped altogether, I feel as if he is being used in service of the author’s comedic and political agendas. At the same time, I pick up some signals that he may not be dead at all. 

I will not say exactly what happens to Alf, but I will say I don’t love it. Unfortunately for readers like me, few books can deliver literary gravitas AND a happy ending. All but a handful of authors have to make a choice. Lan Samantha Chang definitely goes for the former, though she’s no Norwegian, thank God, killing only characters we hate or don’t care about, and sprinkling a little hope around for the benighted survivors. Plus inspiring us to redouble our efforts to find a really good Chinese restaurant in our various hometowns.

And now I must go to yoga before disaster strikes in the new Jane Smiley novel.

Reading novels: a dangerous business, to be sure.
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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

One reply on “How to Read Like a Child”

  1. Wild dogs wouldn’t get me to voluntarily abandon equanimity by reading the chowed dog of the family Chao.

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