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Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rainsford Chan’s story is one of finding himself. He must determine his identity and meaning as a person, a man, and an American. Of these three, only the second one (that is, his identity as a man) presents few problems; remarkably, he experiences less of this struggle than a reader might lend plausibility. He is athletic and likes girls, cars, war films, hamburgers, and milkshakes; hence, there is rather an absence of problems.

His struggle to find himself as a person revolves mostly around the fact that his parents are dead. This works in the novel not as a Freudian formula; rather, it serves as a way for the novelist to emphasize that Rainsford’s background and heritage—even his parentage—are dead. His realizations are never quite made from an existential context, and yet he does discover and define meaning from within the self.

It is the problem of his identity as an American that is of most concern to the novelist and reader. Slowly, Rainsford learns that he is and always has been American, that the problems surrounding him because of his biological ethnicity are not only irrelevant but nonexistent. Wong emphasizes this most especially in the “speculative flashback” technique he uses in telling the stories of Rainsford’s parents, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. All of their experiences as Chinese stand in direct, perhaps even stark, contrast to those of the young narrator. Rainsford’s problems are never their problems; indeed, it often seems that Rainsford’s struggle, though valid, meaningful, and beautifully rendered, is something of a luxury, a self-indulgence. This fact does not undercut the severity or the importance of his struggle; rather, it emphasizes the totality of his loss of Chinese identity and role as a mainstream American.

Wong uses several epic conventions in his work. The trip that Rainsford takes with his family from Berkeley to New York and back, as well as the few years in Guam, are reminiscent of the journey made by Odysseus. Too, his call to his forefathers to help him find meaning in life has more in common with prayer to the Muses than it does with traditional Asian worship or reverence for ancestors. Moreover, his car becomes something of a weapon in his internal war. These connections are never overt, but such occurrences make young Rainsford’s existence and experiences somewhat akin to those of Odysseus.