Good fiction transports us into other worlds. Sometimes, this takes the form of the sweeping Civil War epic or the Deep Space Trilogy–big, complex novels filled with a large cast of main characters and more extras than could be supplied by a Hollywood casting company.
While Clifford Garstang’s new book, What the Zhang Boys Know, is less assuming in scope, it nevertheless settles us into an unknown world both captivating and complex in its own way.
The setting for The Zhang Boys isn’t necessarily “sweeping” or even unfamiliar: a suburban neighborhood teetering between middle-class and poverty, where the scale seems weighted toward poverty.
What makes these stories click isn’t Nanking Mansion–the renovated D.C. area condominium building that serves as the center-point of this familiar-yet-foreign world–but the residents into whose lives we are given little glimpses. In twelve interwoven stories, Garstang opens up for us a subtly complex world filled with love, loss, longing, and loneliness.
Reading this book left me with that same feeling I had as a young boy, the first time I placed a drop of pond water on a microscope slide: At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much there, but as you focus in, a whole world of wonders is revealed.
What the Zhang Boys Know is one drop of water from the Big Pond, and Garstang’s gift is his ability to focus in on the particulars and reveal the complex web of life teaming in that single drop. Each of these stories is fine standing alone, but the collected force of them is best experienced as a bigger whole; they work together to reveal universal experiences through a truly unique authorial lens. Each story is crafted with the same skill and artistry Garstang demonstrated in his lovely collection, In An Uncharted Country, but here, the stories work together to give us a bigger, more fully-realized world both heartbreaking and beautiful.
Learn more at Clifford Garstang’s website:
Links to the two books mentioned: