By Simon Demetriou
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
I like books that don’t use speech marks. It makes sense that there should be no formal distinction between dialogue and narrative, they are both part of the same textual fabric. But also it’s harder to do, and so requires that dialogue is written that sounds like dialogue, and conveys enough characterisation that the reader can follow without speaker tags. Even better, it discourages lazy reading. Weike Wang doesn’t use speech marks. It’s one of the many reasons I like her book, Joan is Okay.
Joan is a rebel. The best kind of rebel because she stands against the things that we have all been told we ought to want and need. She takes aim against the cult of callous individuality that teaches people to speak but never really listen; she rebels against the need for friends, furniture, spouses and children; she questions the mania for wellness and work-life balance for people whose wellness is derived from their work; she rejects money, prestige and glamour as the principles of success. And she does so, simply by being okay.
While all around her try to figure out what could be wrong with a person who goes into medicine for ‘the chance to feel pure and complete drudgery’, who takes only a weekend off to return to China for her father’s funeral, and who rejects the chance of cushy suburban life for a NYC apartment furnished with a fold-out chair and populated by a robot vacuum, Joan carries on being okay.
Joan is Okay could be categorised as a book about coming to terms with bereavement, with the immigrant experience, and with identity. It is, and the book speaks with grace, subtlety, power and wit on each of these subjects. But Joan is Okay is not all about the grand themes upon which it touches.
This is a book about so many things, while at the same time not making any one of those things dominant or over-dramatised. Wang is a brilliantly gifted writer who has created a central consciousness that functions as a lens through which many of the everyday things that form the fabric of human experience can be viewed in a way that is both original and yet feels utterly normal. It is no coincidence that the TV show that Joan most often references after being gifted a TV set is Seinfeld – the show about nothing that made the mundane, or the okay, extraordinary. Because the okay is extraordinary if you know how to see it – or if you have an artist like Wang to show you.