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.