Ok, so I’ve been MIA from Blogging the Bookshelf for a while now (a few weeks in fact!). Things have been fairly busy work wise so I’ve had to cut back on discretionary activities and the blog was the first to go. Unfortunately I think work will continue to be quite demanding for the foreseeable future so posting may be sporadic, but I have good intentions not to lose all blogging momentum during this period.
So, without further ado, back to blogging the bookshelf….
Synopsis: An influential collection of “Neo-realist” fictional novellas from a leading member of China’s “New Generation” of nihilistic authors.
My Take: Part of the reason that I love modern Chinese fiction is the rich vein of conflict that the nation’s ongoing economic and societal upheavals offer the nation’s authors. The fact that the economic and cultural structures that underpin Chinese society have been in a constant flux for more than 50 years offers Chinese fiction writers an enormously rich dramatic canvas on which to practice their craft.
Zhu Wen’s “I Love Dollars” is close to the paradigm example of this. Released in 1994, “I Love Dollars” pushed Zhu to the forefront of the “New Generation” of post-Tianenmen, “Neo-Realist” Chinese authors. These authors sought to break from the strictures of both the classical and propagandistic Chinese literary paradigms and to portray the changing Chinese society as it is (or more accurately, as they saw it). The result is a highly unsentimental take on a series of characters trying to adapt in a world that is moving rapidly beneath their feet.
Zhu’s novellas romanticise neither ‘traditional’ Chinese society nor the receding Communist economy, expressing equal contempt for the desire to cling too closely to either world. However, neither does Zhu’s writing express any particular enthusiasm for the future. The economically liberalising China of Deng’s creation is seen not as liberation from the repression of the past, but as a society wide sand-blasting of all human values bar the pursuit of economic enrichment.
As a result, Zhu’s characters seem almost universally cut off from a meaningful life. Those who have adapted to the new China are often nihilistic or hedonistic souls adrift from any moral anchoring. Those who long to return to either of the nation’s agrarian or communist pasts are viewed as sad, slightly pathetic anachronisms. All however, are victims of the larger forces of Chinese society and the helplessness of the individual amidst the grand sweep of historical change.
While there’s more than enough of interest in the ‘big picture’ themes of Zhu’s books, his prose is also worth checking out. Zhu’s writing conveys the minutiae of modern Chinese life via a sparse and positively caustic prose. The opening of one of the novella’s in this collection, Pounds, Ounces, Meat offers an illustrative glimpse:
On the bridge by the old Drum Tower I was stopped by a shabby individual, clearly someone who’d wandered in from out of town, with a black bag tucked under his arm and an unnerving gleam in his eyes. He told me my physiognomy was most unusual; he simply had to tell my fortune, he wouldn’t charge a cent. The plastic on top of the bridge had melted tackily in the sun: crossing felt like walking over spat-out chewing gum, or smoker’s phlegm, or snot, or semen, or fresh dog shit. I include these comparisons purely to illuminate, not disgust, you understand. If I were to suggest you imagine it was raw meat underfoot, now that, I admit, would be nauseating. Fuck off, I told him as impatiently as I could manage.
Briefly, all too briefly, the man was transfixed by shock, too transfixed to manage any kind of response, till I’d reached the end of the bridge’s elevation and was about to set off down the steps on the other side. Good luck’s coming your way this year! He screeched vengefully at me across the asphalt. About fucking time, I muttered to myself as I descended. When I was halfway down, I happened to look up and see a girl with a healthily tanned face coming toward me up the steps, carrying a black parasol and a copy of I Love Dollars. My heart began to pound. I wasn’t sure, at that moment, whether this counted as my good luck or not. In subsequent weeks and months, I often thought back over this scene, about this girl and that book, about how she kept the latter pressed beguilingly up against her chest, blinding me to its obvious flatness.
This blunt style of writing caused a not insignificant degree of controversy in the PRC of 1994. However it doesn’t feel affected in the context of the disconnected nature of the book’s characters and the neo-realist ambitions of the author. It’s blunt, but appropriately so.
“Is sex the only thing that matters ? Is there nothing else ?” Father threw the pile of manuscripts to one side, shaking his head furiously.
“Let me ask you a question: how come you only pick up on the sex in what I write, and nothing else ?”
“A writer ought to offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom, stuff like that.”
“Dad, I’m telling you, all that stuff, it’s all there in sex.”