A motley, charmingly odd collection of linked stories about contemporary China.
Tel (Freud’s Alphabet, 2003, etc.) offers an ingenious, often surreal account of the tensions between ancient tradition and go-go capitalism. He demonstrates an impressive range of tones, subjects and stratagems. In the opener, “Year of the Gorilla,” an illegal resident of Beijing, wearing the suit in which he delivers Gorillagrams, thwarts a mugging and becomes a celebrity, for better and worse. “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch” depicts a busy adman who seeks a traditional girl via a dating service and finds himself swapping messages and cell-phone photos with…a Ming Dynasty princess. The title of “Love! Duty! Humanity! Virtue!” riffs ironically on the American propaganda dropped from planes during the Korean War. Crippled as a soldier in that war, Uncle Ha dreams of making his fortune with a cotton-candy machine that he purchases from an army buddy in 1979, as the regime’s rules against profit-making enterprise are loosening. But when Ha sends his nephew to town to pick up the machine, the naïve country boy encounters a terrifying vision of what engagement with the wider world might mean. In the long final story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in China,” Tel constructs an imaginative superstructure for the whole book, and in so doing forces the Western reader into an uncomfortable moral accounting.
Smart, subtly observed and entertaining.