Books, Blokes and Sexual Misbehaviour

Whatever generation you come from, there is a good chance that your favourite fictional character is a shit. In “Gone with the Wind”, Rhett Butler commits spousal rape. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Randall P McMurphy has been arrested for statutory rape. And the less said about James Bond the better.

Post-Weinstein, with Bill Cosby convicted and an ever-growing list of prominent men being publicly shamed, the issue of men’s sexual misconduct is hotter than ever.

Fiction is a field that has long revelled in breaking taboos. Incest? Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles”. Infanticide? Anton Chekhov’s “In the Ravine” or Walter Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian”. More recently, it was shown that BDSM has mass-market appeal with the commercial success of “50 Shades of Gray”.

Most of us get used to reading about people with loose morals at an early age. Rumpelstiltskin abducts children. Bestiality is hinted at in “The Frog Prince” and “Beauty and the Beast”. The so-called hero of “Sleeping Beauty” appears to be a graduate of the Cosby school of seduction.

Sensitive material requires skilled hands. Just as to tell a joke about a taboo subject like, say, racism, one probably must be a professional comedian. For ideas on how it can be done, below are examples of some of the greatest writers of all time taking on the issue of men who, for one reason or another, just can’t keep their rocket in their pocket.

“Little Louise Roque” by Guy de Maupassant

In “Little Louise Roque”, Guy de Maupassant sympathetically portrays a rich, powerful man who rapes and murders a schoolgirl.

Monsieur Renardet is the mayor of Carvelin and largest landowner in the district. He is also a grieving widower: “He had suffered at not feeling her dress brush past him.”

Guys de Maupassant.jpg
Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant gets into the psyche of his character: “He had a chaste soul, but it was lodged in a powerful, herculean body, and carnal imaginings began to disturb his sleep and his vigils. He drove them away; they came back again.”

However, Maupassant is not squeamish about describing what Renardet has done, and it does not make for an easy read:

“He felt himself pushed toward her by an irresistible force, by a bestial transport of passion, which stirred his flesh, bewildered his mind and made him tremble from head to foot.”

“There below, under the trees, lay the body of the little girl gleaming like phosphorous, lighting up the surrounding darkness.”

Overcome with guilt, Renardet plans to commit suicide but struggles to go through with it:

“A thousand recollections assailed him, recollections of similar mornings, of rapid walks on the hard earth which rang beneath his footsteps, of happy days of shooting on the edges of pools where wild ducks sleep. All the good things that he loved, the good things of existence, rushed to his memory, penetrated him with fresh desires, awakened all the vigorous appetites of his active, powerful body.”

Good fiction can question the boundaries of normality. Two of the greatest films of 1960, “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” are about likable men with a dark compulsion that they cannot control. The British tabloids would no doubt describe Renardet as a monster, but with a  touch of greatness, Maupassant furnishes him with some disturbingly convincing shades of grey

“A Story by Maupassant” by Frank O’Connor

In “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, Jon Ronson writes about people whose lives have been ruined in front of millions of strangers for reasons ranging from an ill-judged joke on Twitter to appearing to disrespect a war memorial on Facebook.

Frank OConnor
Frank O’Connor

One chapter is about the release of the client list at a brothel in Kennebunk, a quiet community in Maine. While most of the subjects in Ronson’s book eventually achieve forgiveness and redemption, the sixty-eight men on this list receive something better – near total indifference.

There are campaigners such as feminist journalist Julie Bindel who fight for all prostitution to be criminalized. But if you are reading this article you are probably living in a time and place where attitudes toward sex work are fairly relaxed.

Frank O’Connor and the characters in his fiction did not. This is at the heart of the central character’s trajectory in what I think is the greatest short story ever written, “A Story by Maupassant.”

The narrator begins by explaining that only people who grew up in a provincial town could appreciate how much Terry Coughlan meant to him. Terry is a refined, handsome boy who excels at everything: “he taught himself French and German in the time it taught me to find out I could not learn Irish.”

Early on, the narrator explains his fondness for Guy de Maupassant, but Coughlan uses his superior intellect to argue him down, explaining how Maupassant’s work completely lacks poetry. As time passes, Terry begins to develop some bad habits: “Terry was drinking all right, but he was drinking unknown to his mother and sister. You might almost say he was drinking unknown to himself. Other people could be drunkards but not he.

Coughlan’s behaviour deteriorates to the point where he does something that causes the local policeman to say he was astonished that an educated man could sink so low. He visits a prostitute. The narrator reacts: “If he had told me that Terry had turned into a common thief I couldn’t have been more astonished and horrified.”

Explaining himself, Terry describes a conversation that he had with a prostitute, having visited her home where she kept an 18-month old child. He recounts something she had told him: “Oh if it’s poetry you want you don’t go to Maupassant. You go to Vigny, you go to Musset. Maupassant is life, and life is not poetry. It’s only when you see what life can do to you that you realize what a great writer Maupassant is.”

It is an age-old sin to consider one’s own transgressions to be minor compared to other people’s. In decades to come, the moral pendulum may swing back to judging the likes of Terry Coughlan, and the 68 men in Kennebunk, more harshly. Still, like all good storytellers, O’Connor is non-judgmental.

“A Nervous Breakdown” by Anton Chekhov

The plot of “A Nervous Breakdown” revolves around a group of guys visiting a red-light district. The main character is the most reluctant. Others try to persuade him: “No philosophizing, please. Vodka is given to us to be drunk, sturgeon to be eaten, women to be visited, snow to be walked upon. For one evening anyway, live like a human being!

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov

He disagrees with his friends’ behaviour but admires them personally: “He envies his friends: ‘They are both poetical and debauched, both soft and hard; they can work, too, and be indignant, and laugh without reason, and talk nonsense’.

He cannot fathom why otherwise good people engage in such behaviour: “How could they fail to understand that vice is only alluring when it is beautiful and hidden, when it wears the mask of virtue.

He also cannot grasp what makes the women tick:

“And he began gazing at the women with strained attention, looking for a guilty smile. But either he did not know how to read their faces, or not one of these women felt herself to be guilty; he read on every face nothing but a blank expression of everyday vulgar boredom and complacency.”

“Were real people living here who, like people everywhere else, felt insulted, suffered, wept, and cried for help.”

Chekhov is never didactic, and makes the story a genuine page-turner as the reader wants to see whether he goes through with it, but the issue is questioned from all angles:

“One of two things: either we only fancy prostitution is an evil, and we exaggerate it; or if prostitution really is as great an evil as is generally assumed, these dear friends of mine are as much slaveowners, violators and murderers, as the inhabitants of Syria and Cairo, that are described in the ‘Neva’. Now they are singing, laughing, talking sense, but haven’t they just been exploiting hunger, ignorance and stupidity? They have – I have been witness to it. What is the use of their humanity, their medicine, their painting?”

A justification is eventually put to the main character rather glibly: “How is it justified? ‘We human beings do murder each other,’ said the medical student. ‘It’s immoral, of course, but philosophizing doesn’t help it. Good-by’!”

As in all good fiction, both sides of the argument are convincing, and the force of antagonism appears to be too much for the protagonist: “That I should have taken my degree in two faculties you look upon as a great achievement; because I have written a work which in three years will be thrown aside and forgotten, I am praised up to the skies; but because I cannot speak of fallen women as unconcernedly as of these chairs , I am being examined by a doctor, I am called mad, I am pitied!”

“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov

Unlike “A Nervous Breakdown”, where there is a relatable central character and a compelling argument from all angles, “Lolita” is narrated by an unreformed predator. One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, it is also one of the most disturbing.

He tries to deny any wrongdoing, lying both to the reader and himself: “I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor.” As the novel progresses, Humbert Humbert’s perversion becomes undeniable:

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl,’ and then into a ‘college girl’ – that horror of horrors. The word ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.”  

After the death of her biological mother in a road accident, Humbert Humbert becomes the legal guardian of the object of his perversion. The scene after which he rapes her for the first time in a motel borders on farcical, where he is “forced to devote a dangerous amount of time (was she up to something downstairs?) to arranging the bed in such a way as to suggest the abandoned nest of a restless father and his tomboy daughter, instead of an ex-convict’s saturnalia with a couple of old whores.

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov

Still, immediately after this and each of the hundreds of subsequent rapes, the little girl weeps for a long time: “Her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.

Sensible, self-aware people who are comfortable in their own skin are no good at being fictional characters. They are only good for one thing, being ex-spouses.

Writing about these issues is all very risky. The new call-out culture has unleashed a torrent of rules aimed at binding our imagination and policing our dreams. Still, do not for one second suggest that rebelling against this is “brave”. Bravery is when dozens of women come forward and finally speak out against Bill Cosby.

Book Pitch

On May 5, 2018, I pitched my short story collection at the Publishing Industry Day at The Free Word Center in London. Feedback on the below spiel was received positively all around:

I am a Mandarin interpreter by trade, and my short story collection “The Naked Wedding” is set in China. Specifically, in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen.

While Beijing and Shanghai have long been major cities, Shenzhen was a cluster of fishing villages until a generation ago.

It is the unsung epicentre of the world economy, a city that boasts at least five downtown areas with skylines that put Bladerunner to shame. It has the headquarters of seven Fortune 500 companies but most of my characters experience poverty that will leave readers in no doubt that China is still a third-world country. Shenzhen is where the Foxconn suicides took place.

I also write about the rulers of this city, who have moved from the barnyard to the boardroom so fast, they have not had time to shed the manners along the way. It is the 21st century’s Wild West.

One story, already published by Fabula Argentea, is about a Foxconn worker who is reincarnated as an iPhone. The villain of this story is the phone’s owner, a guy named Kevin, who spends way too much time on Tinder.

Another story, “Shuang”, takes a rather slapstick approach to female infanticide. It was described by its Canadian publisher as being “deeply feminist”.

Here is an excerpt from an as-yet unpublished story: “Kobe Bryant and the Freedom Swimmer”:

Fei is ten years old, the age at which Hongbo’s life changed forever. Hongbo has seldom told the story so it has not been exaggerated with time. “Whatever happens, don’t let go,” he can still hear his father say in moments of solitude. With one knee on the sand, Hongbo’s father stretched a floating device over the shank of his son’s elbow and tied it where his biceps would one day be.

The capitalist world was lit up across the one-mile stretch of South China Sea. With no moonlight and most military resources being used in preparation for Typhoon Nora, this was their best opportunity.

It was Li’s third attempt at escaping to Hong Kong. Some friends appeared to have made it but most perished along the way: shot by border guards, eaten by sharks, blown perpetually off course.

“Climb on my back.” Li stepped into the water.

“Cold Daddy.”

“Try not to make a sound.”

The year was 1973 and China was far from the world. His father being a pariah and Hongbo a pariah’s son, the known was more feared than the unknown.

For three days, they had lived like guerilla warriors in the vast mangrove forests of the Guangdong coast: His father had spent months memorizing maps and learning which wild plants were edible. He earlier used his assigned bathing time in the Matou River to practice swimming, telling his teenaged supervisor that he was exercising.

The water passed Hongbo’s knees. He clung to his father’s bulging chest as they leapt into the black, phosphorescent waves.

Writing from East to West

To work, a fictional world needs to be even more logical than the real one. As Terry Pratchett once said, your world can contain pigs that fly, but the internal logic of this must be tightly considered. What is the effect on pork prices? Do some religions still consider swine to be a filthy animal?

Since 2014 I have been working on a collection of short stories set in a country where I have spent a lot of time, China.

In doing so, I am not creating a fictional world but seeking to use the English language to portray a culture that is alien to most target readers. How to do this in ways that are real and respectful, compelling and convincing?

My background before that was in translating and publishing salacious news stories with a view toward having them go viral. This was an imperfect apprenticeship. A good work of fiction needs to be more than sensational, there must be relatable characters, emotional truth and structural clarity.

One of the best short story writers of my generation is Simon Rich, whose works are mostly set in present-day Brooklyn. The cast of characters of his first two collections includes Sherlock Holmes, Cupid, Adolf Hitler, and Marissa Tomei.

Because he is writing about things with which his audience are familiar, he is free to be wacky in ways that I am not. Still, my task is not impossible.

Below, I will discuss four works of fiction with present-day East Asian settings that portray the societies accurately while doing the job I have found so difficult – telling a bloody good story.

Each of these writers is obscenely talented, and to suggest them as examples to be followed is neither helpful nor kind. Still, they all demonstrate technical skills that can be picked up with practice.

“Lotus” by Zhang Lijia

Like Guo Xiaolu (“A Chinese:English Dictionary for Lovers”, “I am China”) Zhang Lijia is a native Chinese speaker who writes in English. But while Guo deals with issues as heavy as dissidents, asylum seekers, corrupt politicians, and The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zhang’s 2017 novel “Lotus” tells the story of ordinary Chinese on the bottom rung of society struggling to get by.

Lotus

The eponymous central character resorts to prostitution after the unfairness and destitution of factory life become too much. While following her story, in which a non-sexual relationship with a male photo-journalist offers her a chance at salvation, readers can take in much about Chinese culture. Following the superstition of naming one’s children after what they are hoped to achieve, the titular character is named after “a flower that grows in the mud yet remains pure and unstained”.

The novel humanizes both the prostitutes and their clients: “one middle-aged architect didn’t want sex, but to complain about his terrible wife.” Lotus is given a pet-the-dog moment early on when it emerges that – like most of her colleagues – she sends money back to her struggling family in the countryside.

The chapter of each title is a Chinese proverb and folk wisdom is sprinkled throughout to help the reader make sense of the characters’ experience: “a fresh flower withers away on cowpat”, “if you stay long enough in a fish market you soon get used to the stink”.

As well as making the characters likeable, it puts them through relatable hell. One reflects that “poverty stifles dignity” and social issues are unobtrusively brought to the fore. Discussing his exam pressure, Lotus’ brother confides to the photo-journalist: “If I fail…my sister will probably kill herself.”

After creating these characters, the novel harnesses the brutal side of life in China to challenge them: “Since Little Red had died young and unmarried, no funeral rites were performed for her.” This leads to a climax in which Lotus considers that “only marriage could ease the stain of her past and secure her future financially.”

“Silver Castle” by Clive James

In Mumbai-set “The Silver Castle” by polymath Clive James, the author’s intellect shines through. In fiction this is not necessarily a good thing, but the depth and quality of James’ writing along with the audacious scale of storytelling keep the reader engaged.

The central character, Sanjay, is a child beggar who establishes himself as a Bollywood stuntman before encountering a situation in which he could either become a star or end up as an adult beggar.

To bring this to life, “The Silver Castle” uses God’s-eye-view narration. James spends pages at a time explaining to the reader what makes the setting and Sanjay’s story unique. At the start of chapter 7, he muses on the challenges of becoming literate in Hindi, using his intimate knowledge of the Russian, Hebrew and Japanese writing systems to explain.

Silver Castle

This culminates in observations like: “One of the most unpalatable facts about the great synthetic nation of India is that its lingua franca, English, is written down in an alphabet so insanely unfaithful to what is said, whereas the principal sectarian languages can, in their written form, be mastered with comparative ease. So the alien language which was meant to unite India has turned out to be universal only in its frustrating elusiveness, whereas the languages that divide it have one dangerous element in common – they feel like home.”

James is similarly expansive when describing the slum where Sanjay spends his early life, contemplating the difference between the U.S English word “sidewalk” and its U.K equivalent “pavement”, and comparing Sanjay’s dwelling to both the favelas of Rio and the underground walkways of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

If I were as well-travelled and cultured as the author I may have enjoyed the book even more. It may be self-indulgent but as the (recently rehabilitated) Johann Hari wrote of James: “What a self to indulge.”

“Number 3” by Anna Metcalfe

The idea of teaching being a low-status, dead-end job is not common in Anglophone countries. Still, in China, some foreign English teachers are considered to be the plankton of the expatriate community, described as “unqualified scumbags” by Shanghaiist and by one memoirist and former English teacher as “total basket-cases at best”.

Shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award in 2014, this piece employs great skill to realize the challenges of China’s education system. The title alone illustrates that in China, schools have numbers rather than names, which says something about the lack of prestige and pride attached to most of them.

The viewpoint character is Miss Coral, a teacher who, though stuck in a system that under-uses her talents and often only dulls sharp minds, lives her life with quiet dignity and dedication.

Observations of her surroundings suggest a detached fatalism: “A late afternoon sun casts a haze over the urban sprawl. Smog and fresh dust linger, hovering over warehouses, slums and disused factories as they leave the inner city and approach the airport.”

At the airport she meets Mr. James, a young Westerner low on teaching credentials, high on entitlement.  By the time he appears, the reader is already more aware than he is of the subtleties of interpersonal interaction in this environment and can see how he is trampling over them.

Still, like all good antagonists, he does not see himself as being villainous and may simply be tactless: “He leans over and kisses Miss Coral on the cheek. She smells beer on his breath. ‘Fuck’, he says, ‘I forgot you don’t kiss in China.’ He walks into the dimly lit hallway, laughing to himself.”

The figure of Mr. James illustrates that, even today, being a Westerner in Asia is in many ways a colonial experience. It also, through their seemingly dispassionate observations, evokes the emotions that the Chinese characters are conditioned not to show.

“Sayonara Bar” by Susan Barker

Set in Osaka, Japan, Susan Barker’s “Sayonara Bar” is alternately narrated by three characters who typify one of the less appealing sides of Japanese society. British graduate Mary works in a hostess bar and embodies the systemic objectification of women; kitchen assistant and college dropout Watanabe the massive pressure placed on young people to perform academically; and middle-aged “salaryman” Mr. Sato the culture of workaholism.

All three narrators are unreliable, but not so much that it isn’t obvious why they are prone to misadventures. Mary is trusting and has poor taste in men. Watanabe, while claiming to exist on a higher plain of consciousness, fails at simple tasks like arriving at work on time and loading a dishwasher. Mr. Sato is strait-laced but tortured, narrating much of his story in the second person to his deceased wife.

Mary wants to flee Japan with her drug-runner boyfriend, Watanabe is secretly plotting to rescue her from this relationship, and Mr. Sato – despite upheaval from his colleagues, a meddlesome neighbour, and a mysterious hostess named Mariko – is determined to live his life in a way of his late wife would approve.

Being a stranger to this setting, Mary is the most relatable of the three, and has a wrenching back story: “When I was a kid she used to go on about the seven pints of blood she lost when she gave birth to me, as though those seven pints compensated for the lack of effort thereafter. Sometimes she’d up the number of pints to eight or nine if I hadn’t done the washing-up or whatever.”

Sayonara Bar

Barker’s prose is at its most enviably sparkling during the sections narrated by Watanabe. Since he believes he can read minds, the use of viewpoint is dazzling: “I too was intrigued by Mary. She gazed stoically into the middle distance as she waited in line. Her mental activity was negligible, practically flat-lining. All her thoughts had been displaced by a melody – the most haunting that I had ever heard, a bittersweet refrain to the indignity and pathos of life.”

The touchingly idealistic Mr. Sato may be different to the author in gender, nationality, age and beliefs. Still, Barker’s writing shows that through detailed observation, authors can make characters who are outwardly eccentric become hauntingly sympathetic: “Everything about her, from her narrow hips to her slight bosom, screamed with obscene youth. She looked at me, steadily, as serene and unabashed as Eve before the fall. I switched my gaze from the cello to banish her from my field of vision. I would not let my body respond. I would not.”

Why The LA Review of Books Is Wrong about “The Incarnations”

This riposte was originally published on The Nanfang on December 20, 2014

There are two things that people should know about critics. The first is that like any journalists, their primary task is to fill the white space. The second is that in doing so, they have to sound clever. Sometimes however, a critic tries so hard to sound clever they end up ignoring hugely significant facts and details. A review of Susan Barker’s novel “The Incarnations” published in The LA Review of Books is a striking example.

When it came out this summer, The Nanfang posted a favourable review of Barker’s novel, a thriller that spans over a millennium of Chinese history. This was followed by unrestrained positive reviews in South China Morning PostThe Independent (which described it as “China’s Midnight’s Children”) and The Guardian.

It is great that Barker’s novel is now getting attention in the American media ahead of a release in the world’s most powerful country next year. However, the review by Pierre Fuller of The University of Manchester contains some assertions that are factually inaccurate and others that are just plain silly. The most efficient way of dealing with some of the assertions is to Fisk the parts that refer to the novel, so here goes:

Incarnations’ (sic) most striking feature is its historical dimension, but its historical actors — concubines, eunuchs, Mongol warriors, Red Guards — appear to come straight from central casting. Storytelling should not be expected to provide authenticity, whatever that would even mean, but we want something at least beyond the literary equivalent of Chinese fare at the Golden Wok buffet, parked between the Dairy Queen and Jiffy Lube on the edge of town.

It is myopic to suggest that the cast of characters is made up of history’s protagonists. The three main corporeal characters are a taxi driver, a masseuse and a hairdresser. The stories set in the past also have plenty of figures who dwell beyond the wings of the stage of history, such as Jurchen artisans.

One of the most extraordinary things about Barker’s novel is that it somehow manages to demystify China. It contains a Tang Dynasty sorceress castrating her pubescent son. It contains Ming Dynasty concubines having their bowel movements and menstrual cycles recorded. It contains a chap who, in the twenty-first century, thinks that the way to fix a broken love affair is domestic violence followed by marital rape.

However, the characters are as real as they are in any good novel and not “exotic” as the headline claims. They make terrible lifestyle choices and grow attached to people who are bad for them – just like the rest of us. Barker, as she explained in a talk at The Hong Kong Book Fair, threw out a completed draft of the novel in 2009 after over a year’s work because she decided the characters weren’t real enough yet.

Barker, as the dust jacket explains, spent years in Beijing, not just getting a feel for life there today, which she captures well in the parts of the book set in the present, but also researching imperial and modern China to find material to bring into The Incarnations. So it’s especially disappointing not to find any trace in her novel of, say, Chinese pioneers opening up land in Sichuan or Manchuria, White Lotus Buddhist sectarians rising up to try to turn millenarian dreams into political reality, Bohemian poets, or any number of other equally entertaining, far more revealing (and in demographic terms equally numerous) possibilities from China’s past.

In the comments section, the accomplished translator Philip Hand dealt with this comment nicely: “The reviewer’s complaint that Susan Barker does not write about the particular Chinese people he is most interested in is just silly.”

Of course, the novel doesn’t cover everything that deserves to be covered. It is a novel not an encyclopedia. Most importantly it captures how, although we currently live in one of the least violent and most rational ages, history is indeed cyclical. One simile suggests that the fossil fuels that pollute Beijing are angered at being dug up from their million year-old graves. This fits nicely with the central motif of “history is coming for you”.

To call Incarnations “orientalist” would be a very tired charge. But equally tired are clichéd constructions of Eastern societies that fixate on the carnal, irrational, and predatory, as Incarnations does, while ignoring complexity and the socially or culturally unexpected.

Yes, this novel is full of violence, particularly sexual violence, but then so is history. Yet there are moments of tenderness that make a nonsense of the reviewer’s claim of “fixation”.

The scene where the main character meets the woman who will become his wife contains the following sentence: “Then she smiled, but as though her heart was breaking, and Wang knew that she needed saving from more than the rain.” After all the misery that has gone on earlier in the novel, reading that sentence is like breathing fresh air on a clear, Beijing day.

And as for the claim that this novel ignores complexity: “The Incarnations” captures the prejudices and superstitions of six different historical periods as well as evoking their sights, sounds and smells convincingly. This could not have been achieved without minute research and an appreciation of the complexities of each period.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker: A Page-Turning Thriller Spanning 1500 Years of Chinese History

This was originally published on The Nanfang on June 20, 2014

Literature is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing. In fact, as Italo Calvino argued, without megalomania it is barely worthwhile.

Academic Alastair Macintosh claimed that the world is a ball of strings, including economics, ecology, theology and popular culture. Most non-fiction books about China written in English in recent years tend to be happy to pull at just one string. A novel by contrast can reasonably attempt to unravel the whole ball.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker is a radical and fascinating novel that makes a commendable fist of doing just this. Covering over a millennium of history and most of the major themes that are currently popular with China watchers, to work with such material would – in less capable hands – be as irresponsible as playing with a ouija board. But Susan Barker, a Creative Writing M.A. who researched the book over several years after moving to China in 2007, handles it with near flawless sensitivity and skill.

Wang Jun, a Beijing cab driver, starts receiving anonymous letters from someone who claims to have been close to him over several previous lives as well as his current one. Some letters display an intimate knowledge of Wang Jun’s far from perfect family life. Others tell stories about the narrator’s relationships with Wang Jun as he was everything from a slave of Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century to a foreigner during the Qing Dynasty.

The most extraordinary of the chapters set in the past takes place during the Tang Dynasty and would stand alone as a short story. Loaded with fascinating period details, it claims that Wang Jun became a eunuch after fathering the narrator and is one of the places in which Susan Barker’s flare as a prose stylist is truly successful. In one scene, a madam gives an inexperienced young prostitute the following advice:

Men have all sorts of peccadilloes…some men like to penetrate the red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the jade watering spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called pushing the boat upstream.

As fascinating as this is, the strongest part of the novel is that set in the Hu Jintao era. It paints a convincing picture of ordinary, downtrodden Beijingers as the new China prepares to celebrate its 2008 coming out party. Every character has a compelling and believable backstory and through them, Susan Barker shows a deep engagement with the major issues in modern China that have been written about over the past decade.

We first meet Wang Jun when he is delving through garbage (Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet”). Wang Jun’s wife points out that girls are less important in the eyes of their parents, therefore they are freer (Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”). Wang Jun’s colleague Baldy Zhang is an incurable misogynist (Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women“). Wang Jun’s father is a bent government official (Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow”). One of the major characters is an oppressed homosexual (Richard Burger’s “Behind the Red Door”).

Whether or not Susan Barker read all these books, it is clear that her knowledge of China was won rather than scavenged. One of the major themes is China’s selectiveness in what areas of its past it’s willing to face (Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”), but this need not distract from the fact that, for all its erudition, “The Incarnations” is best enjoyed as a thriller.

Susan Barker is a brilliant prose stylist and this book should be read out loud. Even some of the most minor details are charged with social and historical insight, such as the items that Wang Jun finds as he rummages through garbage. The notoriously difficult sex scenes are also well done.

However, Barker’s stylistic brilliance is the source of the novel’s biggest weakness – overwriting. Some of the similes, which average more than one per page in some sections, fall flat, not sufficiently defying cliche to warrant inclusion. Children are “wrapped up like little eskimoes” in winter.

This indulgent use of dazzling writing can be unappealing, like a beauty queen whose knowledge of her own hotness is to the detriment of her likability (oops, an unnecessary simile). At times, the excessive scene setting distracts from the narrative and makes the book a bit too much like a Creative Writing PhD thesis (oh bugger, another one). At times, my enjoyment of the writing declined like Wang Jun’s marriage (that’s the last one, I promise).

Moreover, Barker doesn’t always follow the principle that adverbs are guilty until proven innocent, though there is one brilliant use of the word “unfilially” towards the end. The edition I received also contains some utterly avoidable errors, although it is a pre-release version that may change prior to printing. Wang Jun’s stepmother Lin Hong is twice referred to as “Ling Hong.” Changsha is described as Mao Zedong’s hometown. The word “drank” is mixed up with the word “drunk” and the word “wedding” is mixed up with the word “marriage.”

Most of the scene setting is excellent though, such as at the beginning when Barker introduces Beijing by describing some of the passengers Wang Jun has had over the years. “Incarnations” is a genuine page turner that brings it all together quite unlike any other book about China published in the past decade.

“Wish Lanterns”: Poignant Entertainment for All Levels of China-Watcher

This was originally published on The Nanfang July 29, 2016

Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, has cited literacy as a major force for world peace. He points out that at times of increasing literacy books like “Oliver Twist”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” helped bring to light the sufferings of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

“Wish Lanterns” by Alec Ash does not focus on extremes of poverty and upheaval, but instead describes in intimate detail the lives of six people whose experiences will be alien to much of the readership. They are China’s millenials, the generation born after the political catastrophes of the Mao era when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the People’s Republic.

By minutely focusing on these lives, “Wish Lanterns” serves to both demystify a nation which is by turns demonized and exoticized as well as educate even the most experienced China watchers about the people who will write the next chapter in the Middle Kingdom’s history. The three male and three female subjects were born within five years of each other, all have a university education and all have lived in Beijing.

It is not a comprehensive portrait, but the depth and quality of the writing make it well worth anybody’s time. By removing himself from the action – though Ash was present at some of the key scenes described – the book gets fully under the skins of six Chinese people who have come of age at the beginning of what some say will be the Chinese Century.

One of the characters flies to Shanxi Province to meet a person with whom she has exchanged flirtatious WeChat messages. Within eight pages they have shaken hands, flirted, declared their love, been to bed, met the parents, and married, a series of events that covers a timespan of thirty-five days.

This might seem profoundly weird to a cosmopolitan person of the same age. In another writer’s hands, the chapter would probably be a frontrunner for the Bad Sex Award, but Alec Ash has so comprehensively evoked the pressures, dilemmas and uncertainties that the subjects face, that readers will find it difficult to imagine themselves doing things differently. The spare prose and rugged, unforgiving setting even help make it romantic, despite the immediacy with which the couple discusses marriage as a practical arrangement.

“Wish Lanterns” is littered with exquisite touches. When the rebellious, tomboyish Mia is offered a fashion stylist job at Bazaar, it is described as the kind of job her more demure friends “would have given a gloved arm and stockinged leg for.” The weekend bonanza of families visiting Ikea describes scenes in which couples “have real domestics in fake kitchens.”

Perhaps the strongest and most dramatic chapter in the whole book involves Snail, a boy from the Anhui countryside who is the first in his family to go to college, making it all the way to the nation’s capital for his studies. The scene is set in the mid-2000s when World of Warcraft was at the height of its popularity. Standout lines include: “The game offered a sense of accomplishment that three-dimensional life lacked”.

Snail is apprehended by his parents for neglecting his studies due to his gaming addiction. Like the rest of the book, the moment is brilliantly grounded in the five senses (“Snail was pulled out of World of Warcraft to face something he hadn’t seen in a long time: sunlight”.) Every viewpoint is poignantly observed and no person is judged (“With the supervisor’s help, the first time his mother used the Internet was to look up the website for an Internet-addiction rehab center”.)

The book covers issues with which any China-follower of the past decade will be familiar, from the Wang Yue tragedy to the downfall of Bo Xilai. Yet as well as looking at old issues in a new light, it will teach just about any China hand things they did not know.

One subject Fred, a Tsinghua University graduate from a privileged Hainan family, encounters the New Left thinker Pan Wei who is too radical for even the left wing of the Communist Party. The West, Pan Wei argues, is historically a nomadic society which by nature favours individualism, while China is by tradition agrarian and better suited to traditionalism. The evolution of Fred’s political thinking is one of the most engaging elements.

Yet politics is only a tiny part of “Wish Lanterns”. Through his interviewing skills and keen observations, Alec Ash has interwoven six compelling stories and unobtrusively presented the economic, historic and cultural realities that lie within.

“Blind Water Pass” by Anna Metcalfe: Haunting Stories of Intercultural Miscommunication

This was originally published on The Nanfang on October 10, 2016

In theory, the art of the short story is uniquely well-suited to the internet age. Like good web copy, a short story should grab the reader with the first line and keep them hooked. Like good web copy, a short story should be like perfect abs, everything in its right place and with no flab.

In fact, the opposite is the case. You can’t read a short story properly online. They demand something that today’s digital world forbids us from giving: our undivided attention.

“Blind Water Pass”, a collection of short stories by Anna Metcalfe, some of which are set in China, deals with issues that are often too discomforting to think about. These include the plight of immigrants who live in the grey areas of the legal system, the communities and traditions that are being destroyed by ruthless progress, and the suffering of people who make life in developed countries so comfortable.

The collection supports John Carey’s assertion in “What Good Are the Arts” that literature is a profoundly middle-class art form, historically hostile to pride, grandeur and self-esteem. Most of its central characters are caught up in social and geopolitical forces beyond their understanding.

One standout example is “Number Three”, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times Short Story Award. It takes place in a city’s Number Three Middle School and focuses on Mr. James, a foreign English teacher, Miss Coral, who is appointed as his liaison, and Moon, a diligent student who takes tuition from Miss Coral.

The story captures the slowness of life in a Chinese public school and the smallness of the individual in its vast mechanism: “(Moon) neither seeks friendship nor refuses it, and wanders the extensive grounds of the school wearing a look of mild surprise, as though perpetually living her first day.” Like most of the stories, it is not particularly action-packed, but teases out the notion that when spending time in an alien culture, we may do much more damage than we intend by seeking to be understood before trying to understand.

Metcalfe seldom specifies where the stories are set, but those that explicitly take place in China capture the uniqueness of the Middle Kingdom and at the same time demystify it. The following description appears in “Number Three”: “A late afternoon sun casts a haze over the urban sprawl. Smog and fresh dust linger, hovering over warehouses, slums and disused factories as they leave the inner city and approach the airport.”

The collection’s title piece revolves around a girl who entertains tourists with made-up Confucian quotes. This serves as a metaphor of how China’s ancient history is ever-changing to fit the needs of the present.

The central conflict is between the teenaged Lily and her grandmother, who clings onto a folk spirituality that she cannot adapt to the new China. Lily speaks implausibly good English for a rural girl, able to discern the quality of translations and to edit them, but like all good fiction, these stories operate with their own internal logic.

The three major forces in the story are spirituality, technology and nature, but none appears to have the answers the characters seek: “Lily looks at the sky as though waiting for its wisdom to descend.” By avoiding didacticism or a clear environmental message, it lives longer in the memory than the vast majority of what appears on the internet.

Of the other stories set in China, “Everything Is Aftermath” also follows a young girl stuck between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. Metcalfe’s minute attention to the details that her viewpoint characters observe recalls some of Katherine Mansfield’s best work: “His ears are stoppered with blue rubber headphones that produce a tinny, rattling sound. It reminds her of the metal gates at her school, the way they clatter in the breeze.”

Other standout pieces include “Old Ghost”, in which the narrator is an immigrant female taxi driver in Paris whose relationship with the mysterious title character was torn apart by unspecified political issues. The hypnotic “Mirrorball” follows a narrator who begins each section by saying her age, following her from nine all the way up to twenty-two as she gradually evolves to become like her abusive father’s attractive young girlfriend.

A graduate of the famous Creative Writing Master of Arts at University of East Anglia, Anna Metcalfe is a ferociously talented writer whose best work is well worth tearing oneself away from the smartphone for.  It has something to say about cultural contrasts that is beyond the ordinarily expressible.