Dreaming of success, hapless peasants move to the big city in Jia’s newly translated 2007 novel.
Liu, after optimistically changing his first name to “Happy,” arrives in the booming metropolis of Xi’an, in central China, with his friend Wufu in tow. Both men are part of a vast wave of displaced rural Chinese who can no longer make a living farming small plots in their home villages. First-person narrator Liu has a particular reason for choosing Xi’an: he sold a kidney to raise money for a marriage that never happened, and he knows his organ went to a Xi’an man. He also keeps a pair of high heels as a souvenir of his dashed conjugal hopes. Once in Xi’an, Liu and Wufu run up against the harsh realities of income inequality. The only work they can get is scavenging garbage, and they move into a ramshackle tenement shared with fellow trash pickers. Scatological slapstick runs throughout this rambling, episodic, and largely plotless tale. The first chapter begins with a flash-forward: Liu lugs the dead Wufu on his back as he offers explanations to police. Consequently, the manner of Wufu’s death is the main, if not the only, source of suspense. Many anecdotes illustrate the vagaries of culling and selling trash, a lucrative shadow enterprise existing alongside municipal waste management. References to obscure regional cuisine occasionally spice things up—noodle porridge, anyone? Liu’s stated reason for moving to the city, finding his “alter-ego,” the kidney recipient, is soon subsumed by his daily grind, until he encounters Mighty, an exemplar of China’s growing entrepreneurial class. Liu’s new love, Meng Yichun, who wears stilettos identical to his own, is a prostitute working out of a beauty salon on a street where all such salons are fronts for brothels. Although the characters suffer the socio-economic upheavals of contemporary China, they accept their plights and muddle through—this is not a novel of pointed political commentary.
Easily digestible but bland.