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.