A dystopian portrait of China in 2013, where the populace is both muzzled and soothed by state-controlled capitalism.
As the introduction to this intriguing if often plodding novel explains, the book is not officially sold in China, presumably because authorities find its criticism of Communist leadership too provocative. The novel has enjoyed success as samizdat, though, and like its obvious brethren, 1984 and Brave New World, it’s a grim fable that makes stark distinctions between oppressed and oppressor. The novel’s hero is Lao Chen, a middle-aged writer living in Beijing who’s enjoying the country’s economic boom. China has taken advantage of America’s economic collapse (Starbucks is now owned by a Chinese firm), and Lao is rich enough to spend his days as he pleases. Two acquaintances unsettle his comfy lifestyle: Fang Caodi, who insists that the state has erased the country’s collective memory of an entire crucial month, and Little Xi, whose online protests of the country’s post-Tiananmen crackdowns are deleted almost as fast as she can post them. Lao’s eventual political enlightenment is predictable, and convenient chess-piece characters are deployed to either defend the regime or sound alarms. Yet the insights aren’t always as simplistic as the characters; Little Xi’s son, an aspiring propagandist, stars in several bracing scenes that explore the philosophy of repression and groupthink. Unfortunately, the book’s narrative thrust stops cold in the novel’s epilogue, which consumes nearly a third of the book; in it, a Party functionary opines on China’s economic dominance, and how far its policy of thought control will go. In an endnote, the novel’s translator reports that Chinese readers find this section especially compelling, which may speak to how badly China is hurting for art that speaks truth to power.
Didactic, often wearingly so, but interesting as an example of the kind of storytelling the powers that be don’t want heard.