Eighteen-year-old Shelley is “a party in a hurry.” The protagonist of Kathryn Ma’s The Chinese Groove, he is driven, he acknowledges, by “equal parts urgency, desire, and disorder.” His mission, as he frames it in this frenzied year-in-the-life novel, is to immigrate to San Francisco from Gejiu, China; become a rich and famous poet; and earn “Three Achievables”: family, love, and fortune. It’s 2015, his mom has died, and his grief-stricken father cobbles together the money to send him to live with his rich uncle Ted. Once Shelley arrives in the place he calls Peach Blossom Land, he discovers that Ted is neither rich nor an uncle but rather a distant cousin of ordinary means. Ted and his wife, Aviva, have also been marked by grief, after the deaths of their son and Ted’s mother during a robbery at the family store.
The Chinese Groove takes its title from an unspoken bond between countrymen: a cultural-assistance network, as it were. It’s a code steeped in polite deception, which Shelley—born Zheng Xue Li, he is given the name by his English teacher in a nod to the Romantic poet—exploits to his own benefit. He’s a heady mix of innocent and assertive, and he’s determined to believe that other people do not speak the truth. This allows him to read their actions according to his own designs.
“When he’d protested to my father that he didn’t have room for me,” Shelley declares, “my uncle had meant exactly the opposite.… What I was meant to understand was that when I arrived, he and his wife would greet me, arms opened wide.”
There’s an ironic distance between such an interpretation and what we, as readers, know to be true. That distance is only heightened by Shelley’s status as an emergent bilingual student who learned British English in China. Ma has fun with the complexity and beauty of language as her character becomes a more confident speaker. Naïve as he is, Shelley is a perceptive narrator. “They have an extra bedroom,” he observes of Ted and Aviva, “but it’s occupied by sadness.”
As he insinuates himself into the lives of the couple—and Ted’s father, Henry—Shelley continues to frame truth as slippery. “Not every detail belongs in every story,” he tells us, “as you and I well know.” His equanimity is hard-won. For a time, he is unhoused. He works at an under-the-table job while attending an intensive English program. He tries to reunite with a lost love. Eventually, he seizes an opportunity that could help reconnect the family. All the while, Shelley admits his desire to share a fable.
What can I tell you?… Americans—so generous!—were a terribly trusting lot. I suppose my earnest attempts in those early days to speak their difficult language helped direct their sympathy to me. I’ve left out the halt here, also the spit and the gargle. Mistakes were made, some of them amusing but none worth diverting our story.… To dally with our tale would be to slow that young man down, and what would be the fun in doing that?
He bluffs, in other words, so we know we can’t quite trust his clumsiness. Ma builds in narrative unreliability.
The structure of The Chinese Groove is straightforward: Ma has written a classic bildungsroman, in which a character is shaped by experience. At the same time, the telling and hearing of stories play an important role. During Shelley’s mother’s final illness, his father made up “myths-of-the-moment…conjured strictly for her delight.” When Shelley encounters grief again in Ted and Aviva’s house, he recalls the power of such stories, inventing his own to interact with those in Ted and Aviva’s circle. When Shelley ultimately comes to terms with his life in San Francisco, he explains: “I was part of their story now, invisible no longer.”
Shelley’s plight is bleak enough at points that he has to lie to his father to keep up appearances. In the end, however, the stories he’s forced to rewrite are those he’s told himself. His development includes learning how best to interpret and present himself. Ma’s novel is clever, attentive to language, and inspired by the stories we tell in order to survive.•