Living out a dull, bad dream of botched politics, the stunted characters in these novellas exist in a no-man’s-land, halfway between the failed utopia of Chairman Mao and the promise of McDonald’s, Macintosh and MTV.
Gingerly, resentfully, a churlish young writer negotiates the task of helping his girlfriend’s ailing father pee into a bottle. It’s a humdrum humiliation for all concerned, but one that’s finally rewarded with “the poignant tinkle of water on plastic.” Of such small things, Zhu Wen, a leading light of the “New Generation” of Chinese writers who came of age in the shadow of Tiananmen Square, crafts bitter, tragicomic, poetic fiction. “A Hospital Night” isn’t much, plot-wise: Sick old man rages at smug youth. But the Worker’s Hospital where the action’s set functions fine as metaphor—nothing works there. Filial piety, the Confucian ideal, is a bankrupt mockery, and socialist camaraderie is a joke. The title story is even bleaker. Another callow writer goes trolling with his father for teenaged whores. Dad’s a mildly amiable tippler; the son’s an absolute cad, shacking up with a divorced older woman and then cheating on her. A sexaholic, he’s materialism run amuck: “If we’re not getting any otherwise and it’s being sold on the market, why shouldn’t we go and buy some?” “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” achieves a kind of Chekhovian surrealism: Yet one more disgruntled youngster, after falling for a girl “carrying a black parasol and a copy of I Love Dollars,” embarks on a quest to determine the true value of a pork filet. In the author’s China, everything’s a mess, from the drifting Yangtze River steamer in “A Boat Crossing” to the fouled-up factory in “Ah, Xiao Xie.”
A jaundiced view of post-communist chaos. No heroism, no transcendence, just all-too-human desperation.