One day I'm sure I'm going to make it big, great handfuls of bills will hit me in the face whenever I open my door; there'll be nowehere to hide. Dollars - they have this intoxicating, exotic generosity of spirit.
Heavy, bitter irony drips from more or less every sentence of Zhu Wen's short fiction collection, 'I Love Dollars' and Other Stories of China (2008, translated by Julia Lovell). So much so, in fact, that at times these rather lurid stories are surprisingly hard going - and I speak as someone who regularly reads and enjoys Russian novels, which are hardly famed for their lightness of heart.
In the first and the third stories, in particular, there are precious few flashes of humanity on display. Instead, a parade of venal, vacuous characters lie, cheat, trade insults and generally make each others' lives unpleasant just because they can - anything but communicate clearly. This, of course, is the point; the introduction notes that Zhu Wen and his contemporaries have made their names by their iconoclastic willingness to expose just far how Chinese society has been degraded by a toxic combination of repressive politics and rapacious, shameless capitalism: to get rich is glorious, Deng Xiaoping famously declared. It is not, suggests Zhu Wen, when the price is losing everything else.
But it makes for dreary, draining stuff. The first story, 'I Love Dollars' (originally published 1994), revolves around the attempts of a young man to impress his father when the latter comes to visit. It has the appearance of a familiar story, except for the terms in which the narrator conceives of his relationship with his father.
When the latter arrives at his son's apartment to find him with a woman - his girlfriend Wang Qian - who "give[s] off this pungent, earthy scent - the smell of the local women", the narrator worries that he might "lose his [father's] respect" because you can see crow's feet at her eyes when she smiles. With not a flicker of guilt, he "signal[s] to Wang Qian to get lost". His only feelings are for his father's visit; a measure of irritation, and a sort of lazy anxiety that consists largely of how he might ensure that this episode banks some credit for later in his life:
A son shouldn’t shirk his filial duties. If, some distant day in the future, I should ever find myself at a loose end and free of the self-importance that comes with age, and run off to visit my son, I’d want him to figure out what was required, to be able to search out a few glimmers of fun for his hardworking father. I wouldn’t want to end up with some idiot who only knew how to offer a pious faceful of empty respect.
A couple of pages later, the narrator embarks on fulfilling his filial duties by taking his father to a bar and trying to set him up with a waitress ("the same age as my little sister"). After some initial discomfort, his father joins in the game of crudely pushing the boundaries of the initially flirty waitress, until her composure cracks and she leaves. They then spend some time speculating on whether or not she is a prostitute. This becomes a recurring theme; all women - including the narrator's sister - are assumed to be no more than two steps from prostitution. There is no relationship that is not either mercenary or meaningless, or both; and not an opportunity is missed to quantify things (food, drink, wages, services), in both yuan and dollars.
When his father suggests that the narrator, who writes in his spare time, might "'offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom, stuff like that'", instead of always writing about sex, the latter is unfazed ("'Dad, I'm telling you, all that stuff, it's there in sex'"). He works seventy hours a week at the factory; it is, he frankly admits - although not to his father - sheer boredom that animates his writing just as it does all his relationships. He is, it seems, well aware of how empty his life is, and why; but he has been drained of the capacity to respond with anything but cynicism, too clever and tired for passion or regret:
If this city of ours is going to make it into modernity [...] it needs you - yes, you - to abandon all sense of restraint and moderation, to drive these outmoded concepts further and further from your mind, to fit into a future in which both will have been abolished, in which doomsday looms ever closer - closer and closer.
The dial is turned further towards darkly absurdist humour in 'A Hospital Night' (1996), but again the motifs are of individuals either ignoring their duty to their families, or making their resentment plain as they carry them out. The narrator - another writer - agrees with some reluctance to accompany his colleague Li Ping to the hospital, where his father is having an operation to remove some gallstones. She is divorced from her controlling horror of an ex, but nevertheless to show up alone would be to lose face in front of her family. (Why is it that when modern life erodes traditional structures, it doesn't get rid of the really idiotic and harmful ones?) The lie is never made explicit, as that would require some communication; everyone is just allowed to assume that the narrator is now part of the family.
Before he knows what is happening, the narrator has been assigned to spend the night in the ward with the restless, irascible (and "endlessly, inventively uncomfortable") old man. After that, it all takes a turn for the surreal, as the patient's backside inflates and deflates for no obvious reason (prompting the narrator to snap the deathless line at him: "If you were a reasonable being, you wouldn't have such a huge bottom, would you?"). The service provided by the hospital staff is neglectful bordering on callous - for all that this is a Communist country, healthcare beyond the operation itself is a remarkably DIY affair, even within the hospital - but this, too, is couched in terrifically bizarre terms, as when the narrator asks a nurse to tend to the man's reopened operation wound:
Please come and look! No reaction. What are you waiting for, I said, it's bleeding! Badly! If you don't go and look, you'll be responsible for whatever happens. She smoothed the hair over her forehead: Okay, she said, I'll go and have a look, but first you've got to let me grope you a bit more. / I never know what to do in these situations.
As if that wasn't enough, things get more ghoulish still in 'A Boat Crossing' (1995), whose twitchy protagonist appears to be on the run from something, and makes us feel every unbearably paranoid moment of his long-drawn-out escape by riverboat. It's a rictus grin of a story, with a skin-crawling air of Gogol (grotesquerie) via Murakami (randomness), as the narrator spends long paragraphs of the claustrophobic night below decks lying in bed, trying not to look round at his unsettlingly odd cabinmate (repeatedly referred to as "the ghoul") as he eats his oranges:
I pressed my face up against the wall, trying to do my best impression of sleeping like the dead. Come in, come in, come in. It was the ghoul, I now recognised, speaking with a new, louche lilt. When I rolled back over to see what was going on, I immediately shot straight up in my bed. The three of them were sitting in a row on the bottom bunk opposite, all eating oranges with this show of exaggerated enjoyment.
It's never clear why they're doing this, or whether their motives are remotely sinister. But they drive the narrator to utter distraction. The whole thing feels like a feverish dream of the main character, and it only gets more nutty thereafter. The style draws attention to the tics and tricks of a first-person account: the whole thing is told in long, run-on paragraphs; dialogue is not marked out by punctuation, and the more outlandish bits are sometimes repeated, accompanied by the reassurance "That's what he said", as if the narrator is not entirely convinced of his own story. there is thus room to doubt what we are told, but it is told with such intensity that it is difficult to shake, even so. Of all the collection, I highly recommend this story.
The alienating grimness of 'Wheels' (1998) is less dreamlike, but no less difficult. The narrator, a generally good-hearted boiler serviceman and enthusiastic cyclist, gets harassed for money by a stranger who accuses him of knocking into him while riding his bike one day. "[W]heels move faster than legs and are harder to control", he notes; accidents, and their consequences, are unavoidable. So, too, is being at the wrong place at the wrong time; bullies are random facts of life, like fate. The stranger turns out to be the grandfather of the local Mr Big, and soon the protagonist is being beaten up by a the thugs of small-time mafia family and having money extorted on a regular basis. Unable to explain why such mischance should have fallen upon him, he blames his bicycle:
And while I'm on the subject, I might as well point out that wheels are implicated - heavily - in AIDS, the most terrifying viral threat in the last twenty years of the millennium, too. It's thanks to wheels that people can now get around like they do. Wheels carry people over enormous distances to have sex, spreading AIDS as they go.
When, finally, he is unable to meet a payment, he feels certain doom is impending. And then, just as inexplicably, he never hears another thing from his tormentors.
After that, the stories take a welcome - if less memorable to me, some months after I read them - turn for the (slightly) lighter. 'Ah, Xiao Xie!' (1999) is a farce about depression (and such cheery topics as "baijju - the 55 percent liquor beloved of those who have no further use for their livers"), set in an affluent power plant whose workers get money thrown at them to keep the vital service running. 'Pounds, Ounces, Meat' (1999), about a young couple's quest to weigh a joint of meat, is even sillier (my notes say only "That was odd"). Two useful pallette-cleansers, then, after four rather difficult pieces. I'd glad I came across this collection - it was worth it for 'The Boat Crossing' alone - but I'm in no hurry to read it again.