The state bears down on the Chinese characters in this story collection, Chinese-American Li’s debut.
Sasha and Boshen are watching a holiday parade in Chicago, surrounded by carefree young Americans unburdened by history. “I would trade my place with any one of them,” says 21-year-old Sasha, whose movements are restricted in China. No wonder the American concept of “moving on” is so magical. In “The Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha is in Chicago to get an abortion arranged by Boshen, an older, gay Chinese man. The father is Boshen’s ex-lover, a female role actor with the Peking Opera. The complicated back story overwhelms the intriguing three-way entanglement; “Love in the Marketplace” and “The Arrangement” are similarly affected by baggage. Other stories are simpler. In “Extra,” an unmarried middle-aged maid exults in maternal love for a six-year-old “extra,” the unwanted son of a discarded wife, while in “Son,” a “diamond bachelor” (Chinese-born U.S. citizen) tells his mother he’s not on the marriage market, because he’s gay. The most overtly political story is “Immortality” (winner of the Paris Review Plimpton Prize), an ambitious allegory cleverly linking the eunuchs who served the ancient dynasties to the fortunes of a young man who’s the spitting image of Mao and is chosen by the state, after the Chairman’s death, to impersonate him. But no story makes its point more cleanly than “Persimmons,” in which the peasant Lao Da has already had a run-in with the Birth Control Office for not reporting three extra children. When he is denied justice following his only son’s drowning by a corrupt county official, Lao Da goes on a rampage, killing 17 bureaucrats. The powerless man must resort to mass murder to show he is not a “soft persimmon”—a patsy.
Some ungainly plotting, but the author is one to watch.