Chinese-born Yan (The Lost Daughter of Happiness, 2001), now living in the U.S. and writing in English, wonderfully imagines the easy-come, easy-go life of an unemployed Beijing factory worker passing for a journalist.
Three years before the story’s main action, Dan Dong is dismissed from his job at a suburban cannery and installed in makeshift worker-housing with his guileless young wife, Little Plum. He didn’t intend to impersonate a journalist when he turned up for a job interview at a five-star hotel, but he’s mistakenly directed to a banquet in progress, where he learns that journalists pick up a fee of 200 yuan per event to write about whatever is being promoted. Dan has business cards printed, and is soon a practiced “banquet bug.” His enjoyment of these sumptuous meals is marred only by his inability to share them with Little Plum; he hates to think of his adored wife “spending her life as their neighbors do, with so many omissions . . . as if unlived.” At a bird-watchers banquet, he witnesses famous artist Ocean Chen react in moral outrage when served peacock; the two men, both from Gansu Province, strike up a friendship. Hard-shelled veteran journalist Happy Gao, believing that unassuming Dan is a seasoned reporter, aims to get in on the action. She takes him to a brothel in exchange for his article on the peacock debacle. While Happy instructs Dan in the art of give-and-take, Ocean Chen acts as his conscience. Constantly asked to write about the plight of other people, Dan uncomfortably comes to realize that the journalist’s job is to bring hope, a responsibility our Everyman finds enormous and practically unbearable. After all, Dan is a mere mortal, as the author demonstrates in her delightful, unique voice.
A meandering moral journey conveyed through charming characters and surprising events.