This much-censored Chinese debut novel, a young woman’s tour of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, is likely to raise nary an eyebrow when set against its Western counterparts.
Even before the limited success of her short stories made Nikki, the autobiographical heroine, quit her lucrative job as a magazine writer to wait tables and try her hand at producing a “novel that will reveal the truth about mankind: violence, style, lust, joy, and then enigma, machines, power and death,” everyone called her Coco because of her long neck and her lust for fame. Since she can’t write a breakthrough opus with “profound intellectual content and a bestselling, sexy cover”—and thus has nothing to write about—she falls in love with Tian Tian, a coffeeshop drug addict who lives off his distant mother, and soon thereafter with Mark, a married investment counselor from Berlin. Under the sign of Salvador Dali, Henry Miller, and the Beatles, Coco oscillates between her two incomplete lovers, each fulfilling her in different ways, each seeming to make her forget the other in his presence. In between sessions of writing and lovemaking, she introduces her calculatedly outrageous relationships with Tian Tian’s friend Madonna, a former madam whose rich old husband obligingly died soon after the wedding; Pu Yong, the rocker she once interviewed; and Shamir, the lesbian filmmaker whom Mark is eager to have her meet. The drumbeat of brand names and carpe diem pleasures is both avant-garde and deeply old-fashioned, from Tian Tian’s opening note saying “I love you” to the three-handkerchief finale that brings the novel Coco’s been working on together with the one she’s been moving through.
Though unlikely to have the same polarizing impact on Americans as on Chinese readers, Shanghai Baby is a fascinating case study of the impact of Western rhetoric and pop culture, from Nikes to nihilism, on the mysterious East.