Father’s footsteps too big for feckless son
The Emperor of Shoes
Spencer Wise: ambitious debut No Exit Press, £16.99
MUCH OF the best postwar fiction by British writers was set in Asia and the Middle East. Think of Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala among many others. In recent years, postcolonial writers have continued this fascinating tradition but, with a few exceptions, China has been left out.
This is all the more surprising given the extraordinary changes that have been taking place in China, politically and economically. These great changes are, however, at the heart of Spencer Wise’s debut novel. It begins with Alex Cohen, an American Jew in his mid-20s who has somehow wound up helping to run a shoe factory in south China.
Alex has followed his father Fedor to China. Fedor has been there since the mid-1980s, though he likes to say, “I smelled Nixon’s Brylcreem in the Beijing airport. That’s how long I’ve been here.” Fedor moved when the industrial North-East was turning into a rustbowl and saw that the only way to save the family business was to relocate to China, where the labour was cheaper. That’s how he became “the emperor of shoes” and now he has decided to hand over the business to Alex.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem: both father and son know Alex isn’t a businessman. He is a free spirit (Alex’s view) or a shmuck (his father’s view). One thing is for certain, he is not going to succeed his father as the well-shod emperor.
The concomitant tension between the son and the overbearing father is what drives the novel. The third key character is Alex’s Chinese girlfriend, Ivy, a young factory worker.
But what is most interesting is the background, the new China. A Chinese banker is run over while sexting his girlfriend on his iPhone. “You guys are in hyper-speed,” Alex tells Ivy.
The characters constantly talk about the huge new divide between the new cities and traditional life in the countryside. And there are fascinating glimpses of the old rural China. Ivy tells Alex how her grandfather worked for the Foot Emancipation Society, trying to liberate Chinese women with bound feet, and how he ended up being shot against a wall in his own village. This is riveting.
Even so, the character who steals the show is old man Cohen, with his machine-gun Yiddishisms and tough no-nonsense line. He doesn’t have time for friends, he tells his son. “Work is my only friend”. And, he shouts at Alex: “This is a shoe factory in the asshole of the world, princess.”
Alex, by comparison, is a whining millennial, “Mr Heart Bleeds”, full of well-meaning liberal pieties. That may be good politics but it doesn’t make a great character. Whenever his father appears, the energy picks up and the fun begins. Better still, the prose really takes off: “What was his smell? Schmaltz and cordovan. Old Jew.”
This is an ambitious first novel, taking us to a fascinating unknown world, the new China where it looks as if our future is being forged, a place of opportunity and of new conflicts
David Herman is the JC’s senior fiction reviewer
Reviewed by David Herman