Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

When Joan Is Okay begins, our eponymous heroine makes her life sound as flat as a Chinese pancake—or, in fact, as the title of her story. At 36, she lives alone in a near-empty Manhattan apartment, has never had a boyfriend, and loves to spend all her time as an “attending,” teaching “machine readings” in a city I.C.U. Her hedge-funder brother is living the Town & Country life with his glamorous wife and kids in Greenwich, her mother has just flown over from her native Shanghai, and her father, who moved to America to raise his kids and then headed back to the more comfortable China as soon as they were in college, has just died of a stroke. Joan prides herself on having been “standardized”: “I was the standard provider who provided standardized care.”

Welcome to the strange and ever more fascinating world of a woman who aspires to be average. On her rare days off, Joan zips around her bare apartment with a “robot vacuum.” At work, she notices how “wellness Wednesdays or weeks” have turned into “wellness months” and wonders when they’ll be marking “wellness years.” When her bosses find out that Joan took no “leave of bereavement” after the death of her father, they more or less force her to take six weeks off. Now poor Joan is truly bereft: she has to spend time with her busybody family and confounding neighbors instead of at work, where she can do something useful and truly feels at home.

In every brisk sentence of her second novel, Weike Wang takes us deep into the mind—and the well-defended heart—of the kind of self-erasing, 800-on-the-S.A.T. high achiever we walk past on the street every hour. And her story is powered by a voice, declarative and vinegary and acute, that quickly becomes indelible. Wang herself was born in Nanjing, and, much like her protagonist, graduated from Harvard before gaining a doctorate in public health there. I can’t say how much she’s drawing on her own experience and perceptions, but in droll and no-nonsense Joan, she’s given us someone so eager not to stand out that she becomes a complete original.

Though born in Oakland, Joan sees everything around her as freshly as if she were just beamed down from another planet. Obliged to attend yet another mandatory seminar on “cultural competence, leadership, and nonviolent crisis intervention,” she can’t understand why she needs to be protected from “deindividualization.” At one point, her blue-eyed, all-American colleague Reese starts flinging foam stress balls at her, and then disappears on his own “wellness break.” She refuses an offer of an office of her own, and her boss concludes she must be a super-canny negotiator. And when the coronavirus creeps into her story and her life, she notices that by March 2020 life in China is almost back to normal even as the atrium in her hospital is being turned into yet another emergency I.C.U.

Welcome to the strange and ever more fascinating world of a woman who aspires to be average.

Rarely has cross-cultural bewilderment been rendered more hilariously, or with such understated poignancy. For underneath the story of clashing perspectives is a much more human tale. As Joan tries to keep her distance from her brother’s branded ambitions—her corrective to his Crazy Rich Asians style might be called Sane, Economy-Class Asian-Americans—she realizes she’s as far from China as from the America around her.

And though her embrace of an impersonal lifestyle makes her sound a little like the Japanese protagonist of the best-selling novel Convenience Store Woman, she has far-greater depths. Her mother unexpectedly cooks for her, and she feels something pricking at her eyes. Her workaholic father rushes in for the briefest of chats with his “doctor-daughter” because he doesn’t want to spend $17.99 an hour to park in the hospital lot. “If I could hold success in my hand,” declares Joan, “it would be a beating heart.”

It’s remarkable how much Wang packs into her beguilingly quick and readable 224 pages: a story of immigrant aspiration, a medically informed reflection on the pandemic, a portrait of a woman trying to figure out the culture into which she was born by watching Seinfeld, and an examination of why someone might not want to be different (or, for that matter, indifferent).

I don’t know whether Americans are crafting impeccable novels in Mandarin, but I think of Ha Jin, who was working as a busboy in Boston not many years before he won the National Book Award. Of Yiyun Li, who came to Iowa to study immunology and now publishes startlingly different novels almost every year and was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. Wang, whose first novel, Chemistry, won for her the PEN/Hemingway Award, a “5 Under 35” citation from the National Book Foundation, and a place in The New Yorker, nobly extends that tradition. America is going to need a radical upgrade, she reminds us, if it is ever going to keep up with the Joans.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of many books, including The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations