‘Didn’t I tell you,’ a character asks halfway through C. Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, ‘that you should always ask why a person is telling you their story?’ In a series of essays and interviews around the time of the book’s publication, Zhang tried to explain why she was telling this one. When she was four her family emigrated from Beijing to Kentucky, then to California when she was eight. They upped sticks several more times before she turned eighteen. Somewhere along the way, her parents got divorced. Neither wanted to talk much about the past. ‘Like many immigrants’, Zhang said, they ‘depicted their pre-America lives as mere prologue, quickly sketched’, and devoted their attention to constructing a ‘mythology of the future’. She inherited an impulse to ‘look away, look away’ from anything emotionally demanding. Nine years ago, when she was 22, her father was found dead – already decomposing on his office sofa – and ‘automatically, by force of lifelong habit’, she turned down the opportunity to view his body. But she discovered that ‘the death of a parent … warps everything else around it’ and that looking away was no longer an option. She was laid off from her job in tech and moved from San Francisco to Bangkok, where she tried to use her father’s life and death in fiction: the results were ‘at once too literal and too sentimental, inert and squishy as a stuffed animal’. Then, one day, ‘with a kind of perverse, fuck-it energy’, she decided ‘to deliberately not write about my dad’.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold represents the extraordinary (and ambiguous) result of that process, begun with her father’s death and taking her eventually to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We first encounter Sam and Lucy, siblings aged eleven and twelve, when their father is a few hours dead, still lying ‘stiff in the bed, eyes slitted open’. They need to get hold of two silver dollars to give him a traditional burial. The backdrop suggests we’re in a Western: a valley of ‘bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek’ and surrounded by ‘ragtag camps of prospectors and Indians, knots of vaqueros and travellers and outlaws’. But Lucy and Sam don’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as their surroundings: they call their father Ba, dine on chicken feet, and something about the way they look makes other children want to pinch them. A bank teller whom they ask for a loan spells it out: ‘Run on, you filthy. Little. Chink.’ This enrages Sam, who starts shooting with Ba’s gun, and they’re forced to make off into the hills on horseback with the corpse strapped to their saddlebags. Sam in particular is reluctant to part with the body, and before long their father has degenerated into something ‘half jerky and half swamp … his softer parts – groin, stomach, eyes – swim with greenish-white pools of maggots.’ As the days pass, bits of the corpse start to fall off: ‘a toe, a piece of scalp, a tooth, another finger’. Zhang insists that none of this is about her own father. She’s right – in a sense – but the gory passages wouldn’t be so hard to stomach, one suspects, had they not been written in the wake of his death.
The story is told mainly from Lucy’s perspective and makes extensive use of flashbacks. Ba, we soon learn, was a failed prospector. He was too late to profit from the gold rush, and instead had to eke out a living as a coal miner. But he was always on the hunt for a more prosperous life and the children were never allowed to put down roots:
What’s home mean when Ba made them live a life so restless? He aimed to find his fortune in one fell swoop, and all his life pushed the family like a storm wind at their backs. Always toward the newer. The wilder. The promise of sudden wealth and shine. For years it was gold he pursued, rumours of unclaimed land and untapped veins. Always they arrived to find the same ruined hills, dug up, the same streams choked with rubble.
The reek of death comes off these landscapes as sharply as it comes off Ba’s corpse. The soil no longer bears crops; the water isn’t safe to drink. Nobody could feel at home in such a desolate place, but it’s especially difficult for Lucy and Sam. They’re forever being asked: ‘Where are you really from, child?’ One phrase runs through the novel as a refrain: ‘What makes a home a home?’ This is Zhang’s central theme, but it’s far from the only question she raises. Others include: ‘What makes a family a family?’ and ‘What makes a man a man?’
The last of these is relevant to Ba’s decaying body – a week or two after he dies something ‘long as a finger but thicker … with wrinkled skin … like a dried plum’ drops off him – but it’s also relevant to Sam, who at the start of the novel dreams of becoming a cowboy and is already ‘capable of a man’s strides’. A few pages later there’s a big reveal when Lucy, nursing an unclothed and unconscious Sam, ‘draws half a carrot from the indent between her little sister’s legs’. Her little what? It’s explained that Ba always ‘wanted a son’ and that Sam was keen to oblige him. The language of trans identity isn’t available to these characters, who must be living in the 19th century, so it makes sense that Lucy persists in thinking of Sam as her sister. But Zhang still has to deal with the ticklish question of pronouns. Her basic strategy is to avoid them altogether, which means we get lots of sentences like this: ‘Sam’s face darkens, Sam’s gaze skitters as if fearing the boom of dynamite, till Sam’s voice fades and Sam gulps whisky.’ As a way of striking a balance between contemporary politics and the conventions of the period in which the novel is set, it’s no worse than any other solution, but it weighs heavily on Zhang’s prose.
It’s frustrating, because when the interference clears, the prose is one of the novel’s most striking achievements. Zhang has described it as combining ‘the rangy cowboy poetry of pulp Westerns’ and ‘the pidgin Mandarin of my childhood’ – and it isn’t quite like anything you’ve read before. At times the syntax is fairly literary, and the story moves along at a pleasant tilt. Then articles begin to be omitted, sentences become shorter, cadences harsher, and the imagery takes on a decorative quality that seems as stereotypically Eastern as other elements are generically Western. The effect is both discordant and compelling:
There was a kind of miner’s wife who faced inland and sighed: Civilisation. Such wives came from those fertile plains on the far side of the mountain, tugged West by letters from miner husbands. The letters made no mention of coal dust. The wives arrived in cheerful dresses that faded fast as their hopes in the strong western sun.
Soft, Ba scoffed. Kan kan, they’ll die off quick. He was right. When cough came, those wives crumpled like flowers tossed to fire. Their widowers remarried sturdy women who fixed eyes to their tasks and never looked inland.
Zhang’s short stories (not yet collected)are full of feral children, zombie brides and disembodied brains trailing ‘cerebral goo’ that smells of ‘stale tears’. The novel isn’t so determinedly weird, but Zhang hasn’t turned her back on fantasy altogether. The landscape through which Lucy and Sam travel seems a lot like California, but there are wild tigers on the prowl; we aren’t in the 1800s, as one would assume, but are given dates between ‘XX42’ and ‘XX67’. It’s brave of Zhang to come at her themes from an angle – if the setting isn’t actual 19th-century America, then there’s a risk that her revisionism might lose its relevance – but, for the most part, she pulls it off. We’re left with the big questions. What makes a Western a Western? What makes a myth a myth?
At times, the juxtaposition of individual and environmental tragedy can seem overdetermined, but it’s nice to read a (sort of) historical novel in which the setting isn’t an object of nostalgia but a patch of earth whose best days are already behind it. In a section narrated by Ba’s ghost, we’re shown the hills as he first knew them, before the prospectors had scraped them bare: ‘The streams and rock shelves, the valleys where scrub oaks bunched so thick they seemed one mass … the reflecting pools, where water was so clear it showed a world the exact double of this one’. A similar destructive force seems to have ruined Ba’s life.
Zhang’s method is to start from a point of disintegration and to proceed backwards until something recognisably man-like, family-like or home-like comes into view. After being introduced to Ba’s corpse, we’re allowed a glimpse of him just before he died: ‘Ba refused meals and took whisky like water. His lips sank into his leathery face, his teeth loosened and spotted, and his eyes went red, then yellow, then a mix of both like fatty beef.’ Next we meet him as a younger man – already the victim of rotten luck but not yet defeated by it – and finally as a boy, ‘skinny and swift’, full of big ideas and bigger feelings.
There’s an excess of action in the novel’s final stretch – Lucy and Sam get separated, fall in with (and then out with) a rich girl and her creepy fiancé, spend time in a bordello and have a run-in with a posse of gun-toting debt collectors. The erasures of American history and the blind spots of the Western, the pressures of gender identity, the difficulties of race relations, the privations of the immigrant experience, the desecration of the environment, the pain of family secrets, the trauma of losing a parent: it’s a lot to tackle in a short book, and there are moments when the clamouring themes come close to drowning one another out. But perhaps they’re not really separable. Zhang has said that the things she writes about are ‘not issues, but the central questions of my life’. A writer preoccupied by so many private questions might have been paralysed, but Zhang takes them on with a perverse, fuck-it energy all of her own.