I originally accepted the assignment of reviewing Susie Luo’s debut novel Paper Names on the basis of its title, expecting a narrative having to do with the so-called paper sons (including my great-grandfather) who immigrated to the United States during the Chinese Exclusion Act. Instead I received an advance copy of a drama centered around a family of three who leave behind modest stability in Dalian, China, and the adversity they face in rebuilding their lives from scratch in 1980s New York City. The result is a clumsy but occasionally compelling exploration of identity, trauma, and the false promises of the American Dream.
Despite their STEM backgrounds and training in their home country, Tony and Kim Zhang endure underemployment (he a doorman at an exclusive Upper West Side co-op; she at a bakery) in order to cobble together enough to support themselves and their daughter Tammy, whose future is the reason they immigrated in the first place. When a random act of violence outside the co-op unexpectedly brings the Zhang family into closer orbit with the building’s wealthy residents, it sets in motion a series of events that, over the course of the following decades, brings prosperity and pain in almost equal measure.
Though a work of fiction, Luo drew inspiration for Paper Names from both her and her parents’ experiences. The novel effectively portrays the ripple effects of generational trauma and how hard it is to break the cycle when all you know is the toxic, abusive environment that produced you and that you normalized, though none of the characters are particularly likable. Luo seems to write from a place somewhere between thinly veiled disdain and resentment whether it’s directed at Tony and his stubborn old world mentality, self-absorbed Tammy embarrassed of her roots, or the elites descended from generational wealth that pass through the co-op doors with nary an acknowledgement of the doorman. At times this dissonance is so great that one can’t help but think that the writer’s identity issues might be more effectively hashed out through talk therapy rather than through fiction. Not to mention that, as a reader, it’s hard to be on anyone’s side when it doesn’t feel like the author is.
Spanning a decades-long period, Luo proves adept at jumping between timelines and perspectives without losing control of the plot or reader’s attention span, while also building tension toward the climax. Although the cast feels more archetypal than like fully fleshed-out individuals, particularly the men who work at the law firm that Tammy ultimately joins and who are painted with the faintest hints of the Wolf of Wall Street vibes, where her prose shines brightest is in bringing settings to life on the page, invoking the sounds, smells and feel that make vibrant New York City unique.
While Paper Names has all the right beats for a moderately engaging if not trite story, for the most part the writing comes across as stiff and wooden. It’s a solid effort for a first-time author who wrote the novel during the pandemic while working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs (much more than most of us accomplished during those months), yet I found myself yearning for the nuance and catharsis of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart and the artistry of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s haunting How High We Go in the Dark.