“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.

Movie Review: “The Witness”

This review was first published in Shenzhen Daily on November 13, 2015

You can learn a lot about the art of storytelling from prehistoric tribes, who like us, were prolific at it. Living in a state of constant danger, if they heard the sound of rustling in the bushes, it was probably just the wind, but it could also have been a sabre-toothed tiger. Some may have been curious and adventurous enough to investigate the source of the noise, but the ones who survived to become our ancestors were the ones who sprinted.

Good storytelling takes into account that all human behavior is (on some level) logical, and that humans are profoundly conservative creatures who only do what they must. “The Witness,” a remake of the 2011 Korean thriller “Blind,” is about a damaged person who pushes herself to her own limits as she is forced to overcome an antagonist who harnesses technology, medical science, women’s desires, and the protagonist’s own traumatic past.

Lu Xiaoxing (Mini Yang) has lost her eyesight and career in the police force after an accident which killed her brother, a promising young singer. Her blindness causes her to get into the wrong car at the wrong time and witness a hit and run, an investigation on which she wishes to help.

The investigation also involves skater Lin Chong (Lu Han), who is an eyewitness, and a father-son detective team. Each has their reason for wanting to help, Lu Xiaoming can show that she still has something to offer the police force and perhaps save rather than condemn a car-crash victim. Lin starts by wanting a monetary reward but ultimately discovers a more protective side to himself.

The other storytelling lesson we can learn from our ancient ancestors is that people grow close to people, as those who were cast out from the clan had the lowest chance of survival. The relationships range from the comical (Wang Jingchun’s detective and his son), to the vaguely romantic (Lin and Lu), to enmity born of similarity (the villain Tang Jing and Lu).

Despite their differences, the characters end up working together in a plot that is as toned as a bodybuilder’s pectorals. If you removed one element, the ukulele played by Lu Xiaoming as a child, a song written by her deceased brother, or the dating app which the villain uses to snare his female victims, then the whole structure would fall.

Though there is good chemistry between the leading actors, there is a merciful absence of a love story subplot. In other films of recent years, including the baffling “Tiny Times” series and the dreary “You Are My Sunshine,” Yang has played vapid eye-candy who thrives under male domination. In the first two minutes of “The Witness,” she performs kung fu on a man but later shows the right amount of vulnerability.

After the villain is identified, there are two nail-biting chase sequences in the second act, though the final climax is a tad overstretched. This habit of over-long final action sequences which is common in Chinese thrillers (another notable example is 2013’s “No Man’s Land,” directed by Ning Hao) may be a bad habit that has been picked up from kung fu movies, which tend to have very little plot.

The acting in one scene which is key to characterizing Tang (Zhu Yawen) and drawing parallels between him and the heroine is overcooked by Zhu. However, during the action sequences he is delightfully menacing and beautifully photographed. Credibility is also stretched by the posthumous celebrity of Lu Xiaoming’s brother in the Twitter age when most things that are sensational one day are forgotten the next.

It is rare in any type of storytelling for something to be entertaining, thrilling and moving, often at the same time. “The Witness” pulls this off while having interesting things to say about how technology is revolutionising the ways we do everything from remembering the dead, to seeking one-night stands, and to committing and solving crime.