The Emper­or of Shoes

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

The Emper­or of Shoes, the debut nov­el from Spencer Wise, fol­lows in the tra­di­tion of many oth­er Jew­ish com­ing-of-age sto­ries but also nods to the clas­sic nov­el of the west­ern­er abroad. (We could imag­ine an alter­na­tive title being The Not-So Qui­et Amer­i­can.) The sto­ry fol­lows Alex, an Amer­i­can Jew in his twen­ties, liv­ing in South­ern Chi­na and help­ing his father run the shoe fac­to­ry that he will one day inher­it. Alex is placed on the fault line between his father, a not par­tic­u­lar­ly scrupu­lous busi­ness man, and Ivy, a fac­to­ry work­er who, thank­ful­ly, has suf­fi­cient sta­mi­na to func­tion both as a love inter­est for Alex and as a mouth­piece for the dis­so­nant move­ment that upends his sense of moral­i­ty. As the plot unfolds, Alex is forced to ask whether one should hon­or thy father” even if thy father” runs a sweatshop.

At its best, this col­li­sion between indi­vid­ual and social con­flicts has the poten­tial to height­en both. By mak­ing Alex’s feel­ing of being out of place both phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al, the nov­el forces him (as well as the read­er) to think about place from dif­fer­ent angles than one might oth­er­wise. And by set­ting the sto­ry dur­ing a peri­od of labor unrest, the book focus­es on the rela­tion­ship between pol­i­tics and emo­tion too often ignored in polit­i­cal dis­course. There is also an inter­est­ing ele­ment to jux­ta­pos­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish com­ing-of-age sto­ry with the set­ting of Chi­na, as Alex is forced to ask what it means to be Jew­ish while sep­a­rat­ed from his home and com­mu­ni­ty in Boston. While the con­cept of dias­po­ra is foun­da­tion­al to so much of Jew­ish his­to­ry, it is easy for a char­ac­ter like Alex (and many poten­tial read­ers) raised in estab­lished Jew­ish Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties to lose sight of it. This sense that Alex is try­ing to under­stand his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty at the same time he adapts to liv­ing in anoth­er coun­try (best expressed in the enter­tain­ing col­li­sions of Yid­dish ver­nac­u­lar with Chi­nese descrip­tive details) is an exam­ple of how the nov­el takes admirable advan­tage of its con­ceit to ask inter­est­ing ques­tions of Alex.

There are, how­ev­er, risks to this approach as well. Stag­ing a com­ing-of-age/love sto­ry in the midst of a Chi­nese social con­flict runs the risk of hav­ing char­ac­ters oper­ate as metaphors for pol­i­tics, and becom­ing stretched in their dual roles as being both peo­ple and sym­bols. There are also always chal­lenges when depict­ing anoth­er cul­ture with­out default­ing to stereo­types or set­tling for exploita­tive car­i­ca­ture. At times the book comes a lit­tle close to the line for com­fort, as with the case of the father’s mis­tress, whose bro­ken Eng­lish just hap­pens to cause her to speak in dou­ble entendres.

Ulti­mate­ly, the reader’s expe­ri­ence with The Emper­or of Shoes will boil down to their impres­sion of its nar­ra­tor. And here, Wise has smart­ly expend­ed much of the novel’s ener­gy. Alex is a fine dis­ci­ple of the anx­ious and artic­u­late nar­ra­tors in whose foot­steps he fol­lows. Many read­ers will be tak­en in by him and the well-con­struct­ed plot of the book. And for those read­ers for whom Alex is not enough? Well, even if The Emper­or of Shoes can­not be said to change the con­ver­sa­tion” regard­ing the west­ern trav­el nov­el, at least it does add some Yid­dish to it.

Discussion Questions