Unwelcome by Quincy Carroll

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In ‘Unwelcome’ we follow Cole Chen through his awkward misadventures in California and Changsha, China. The twenty-three-year-old has come back from his second stint in China and is crashing on his brother’s couch. Our introduction to Cole is through the eyes of his more successful brother, Abraham. Cole is a slovenly, unmotivated house guest. Something went wrong in China, but we don’t know what.

In the sections set in America, we get perspectives on Cole from several third-person narrators, including a former teacher and a Tinder date. In China, Cole himself narrates in the second person ‘You.’ Using this point of view was a literary risk but works out fine. Those around Cole in America think there is something wrong with him. However, they don’t know how to help beyond an (often implied) call to clean yourself up, get a job and stop being creepy. For me, Cole is having a major depressive episode. Nobody suggests he go to a doctor, therapist, do light therapy, take ketamine or exercise. This is troubling but not unrealistic. It’s scary that Carroll creates many convincing characters – but their only role in the book is to reflect on Chen. The resulting 360-degree character assassination is gripping in the tear-legs-off-a-spider kind of way.

It’s unclear what Carroll’s philosophical angle is on his dark alter ego. There is no hint of a solution for Chen, spiritual or other. I can’t be sure but Carroll seems to suggest that Cole’s ‘toxic masculinity’ is inherent. How much has the author swallowed the social justice narratives of liberal society in California? It doesn’t matter. What is great here is the realism. The set pieces, like the beer pong game at Abraham’s stag party or the hotpot dinner with Cole’s Chinese friends, are vivid and detailed. There is the usual carry on of the Chinese being amazed a foreigner can speak their language. For Cole, there is an added aspect to this as he is half-Asian, half-white but looks white.

“You had always tried to evade the subject of the paternal side of your family since you hated your father and it made the Chinese look at you differently: no longer an adept foreigner who’d mastered their language and cultivated a real understanding and respect for their culture but rather a clueless, less impressive member of the diaspora, completely dissociated from his roots. What could you say? When it came down to it, you liked being a white person in China; you didn’t need to feel guilty or ashamed of it, like you often did back home.”

The life of an unfocused twenty-something trying to make a life for themselves in China was well-captured as in Carroll’s first novel ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.’ This is continued here. In the city of Changsha, Cole is a beer salesman for a small foreign company and tries to write a memoir. He spends a lot of time alone and is very unsure of himself when around others. Although he feels his life is more meaningful in China, he lacks a routine and is constantly anxious and so drinks much more than he would in the West.

“You were either going to have to start cooking for yourself or skipping the occasional meal moving forward; the drinking was a fixed cost.”

There is no doubt that Carroll is an ambitious writer and while most can’t or won’t reveal the extent of their own navel-gazing, he has impressively slipped the auto-censor, especially in showing how inexperienced Cole is at dating. When Cole starts getting somewhere with his love interest Harmony – a Chinese girl who he meets in less than ideal circumstances – he becomes tortured about each text he sends her. Ultimately, this lack of social and sexual confidence will be his downfall. As a character, I don’t think Harmony is as strong as Bella, the English groupie, in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside. But in Cole, we have a more in-depth study of the foreigner in China than the American English teachers in Carroll’s first novel.

I enjoyed Unwelcome because of having, like Cole, led a life of hard-drinking in China in my twenties. However, I don’t think you need an interest in China to get something out of this well-put-together, introspective, super-realist and bleak novel.

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