Lin follows the lives of dreamers and agitators in this debut collection of stories.
In “Ghost Wife,” a Chinese-American man in Beijing begins a relationship with a woman whom he met after her scalp was ripped off by a wild dog. A Communist Party official is tasked with babysitting a journalist, making sure that the curious writer doesn’t see anything that he could use to criticize the government in “National Holiday.” A minor altercation between two people on a San Francisco subway in “Charge” becomes a focal point for all the frustration that either person has experienced in their lives up to that point. In each of these nine stories, Lin follows Chinese people as they struggle with their political, cultural, and personal baggage, and he provides insights into the mysteries of human interaction. In the title story, for example, a Chinese model/exotic dancer moves numbly between the arenas of her existence—amorous, familial, social—while also longing for a new life that she can’t bring herself to live. She sets the tone for the rest of Lin’s characters, who often wish to escape from situations they didn’t choose for themselves—and from some they did. “One could almost believe them to be comatose if not for their moving bodies, their jerky attempts at spontaneity,” observes the model about her fellow dancers. “A nation of stone-faced ballroom dancers, she concludes sadly—sure you can learn the foxtrot and the waltz like you memorize poems, but what does that get you?” It isn’t all cynicism, though, as the author also provides a world large enough for his characters to dream in. As the woman who briefly loses her scalp says, “You know China is so big that every story you hear must be true, somewhere?”
Lin writes with a natural lyricism and a wondrous ability to render the spontaneity of human thought, as in “Litany, Eulogy”: “My sister with the bouncy head, and the arm I slammed in a car door once, because I was lazy enough to do it. Her face went all red as a result, and she never seemed more alive.” He’s willing to experiment with form, as well; the tale “Floating World” is subtitled “A Film Treatment,” and its structure is just that—describing its characters’ actions from a distance in clipped, malleable language. “Blood-Stained Heroes” offer a series of vignettes that follow several people in the midst of high-pressure situations—a child fleeing his father’s punishment, combatants in a gangland gun battle, a calligraphist auditioning to join the emperor’s court. The story leaps from one player to another in a manner that always keeps the reader unsteady. Overall, these tales all feel very much of a piece, with shared themes of isolation, identity crises, and interconnectedness along with some recurring character types. Along the way, Lin manages to crystallize a set of concerns of a specific, unique group of people while also managing to make them feel universal and timeless.
A well-crafted and welcome short-fiction debut.