The day after finishing Small World, I caught a television news spot about how 80 percent of the doughnut shops in southern California are owned by Cambodians. Many of the immigrants settled in the United States in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, following the genocide in their home country. The piece featured a Cambodian-American artist, Phung Hyunh, and her exhibit “Doughnut (W)hole,” which used the pink doughnut boxes in place of white canvases and juxtaposed childhood images of “doughnut kids” with their adult selves.
“That common shared experience of the doughnut is very American,” said Phung Hyunh. “Underneath the sweet of the doughnut is actually inter-generational trauma and pain.”
And that is Jonathan Evison’s Small World in a nutshell. (Or doughnut hole.) That common shared experience. Immigrants. Newcomers. Finding your home. Hope. Dreams. Ambition. Work. Viability. Birth. Rebirth. Growth. Renewal. And for every touch of kindness, an equal dose of trauma and pain. For every smooth trip, a wreck. Small World is a three-dimensional, time-hopping tapestry of portraits of regular people who see around the corner to “next.” Small World is about a lot of things, but one of the main themes is the ability of an individual to move—to literally and metaphorically transport yourself to a new life and new opportunities. And trains are one of the main motifs.
Evison, riding up there in the locomotive with his hand on the throttle, asks readers to keep track of a whole coach full of characters. The novel starts in nine places. We meet Walter Bergen in 2019, then skip back to “The Bergens” (a mother along her young son and daughter) in 1851 aboard a ship on the way from Ireland to America. We meet Brianna Flowers in 2019 and then a character named Othello in 1851. Next, Winston Chen-Murphy in 2019, Jenny Chen in 2017, Wu Chen in 1851, Luyu Tully in 1851, then Laila Tully in 2019. We finally circle back to Walter Bergen on Page 73 but we aren’t done meeting new characters as we next pick up Malik Flowers in 2019. We careen from one coast to the other, to the middle of the country, and back around. But, not to worry. Evison makes it easy. We start to see the connections. There’s precious little slack in the couplings. Go west? Sure. Or go anywhere. Go somewhere. But as you go, think ahead. And imagine how the next generation of your extended family will fare.
Evison shows his cards from the get-go. Right out of the chute, even before the official Chapter 1, we get a four-paragraph entry called “Full Service Reduction.” This is foreshadowing in full technicolor. We meet “Walter” only by his given name. We are told there has been a debriefing, interviews, a hearing and a “retirement party that never happened.” There was a train “hurtling toward the unavoidable” and we know Walter cared about his passengers and we get a quartet of surnames that alert us to key names to come. And Walter, who is still dazed and navigating “a world wrapped in gauze,” wonders “what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.”
Circumstances? Decisions? Moments? That’s what the next 466 pages are all about and the dual-timeline mosaic gives us the aforementioned plethora of characters and all the challenges of finding their way, finding their home and, of course, finding each other. (Cue up Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” We’ll make our bed, say our grace, and so on.)
Evison’s characters are so richly imagined that we easily succumb to the narrative. The planning and plotting likely required a chart like a detective’s intricate murder board with a dozen suspects, except Evison is bringing these characters to life. We see individuals make choices, take chances, ponder risks. There are themes of identity, race, religion, slavery, freedom, classism, self-reliance and community, too. The list is long. Ambitious? And then some. I can imagine others wanting the novel trimmed; I can also imagine others wanting two pages for every one that’s here.
Though we know Small World will end in a train wreck, the novel revels in hope. There are many charitable gestures that alter lives like, well, a switch at a railyard. Some are in-the-moment offerings that cost the giver almost nothing, others are as magnanimous as taking a stranger under your roof. Even Walter Bergen, on the last day of his 31 years riding the rails, has something to learn about family and choices and who we all are, down deep.
Okay, back to the artist with her doughnut boxes. In that news story, artist Hyunh said she wanted to remember and respect the first generation of Cambodian immigrants. “It’s the only generation born in the United States to tell their parents, ‘Look, we want to honor you. You never had the time to even think about what you’ve been through. And we want to take this time to honor your story because you didn’t have the time to write about.’”
In his own heartfelt way, Evison took the same time. (Lots.) In today’s world of now and this moment, it never hurts to stop and wonder, well, how did I get here? Small World is an upbeat lump in the throat. And there is nothing wrong with that. Is there?