China has fascinated Western writers for centuries, sometimes as an outlet for trendy exoticism, sometimes as a mere symbol of “otherness.” The latest American author to offer his take on the Chinese mystique is Jack Livings, whose first short story collection, “The Dog,” showcases eight imaginative stories set in present-day China.
Livings’ experience with China primarily comes from his college years, when he studied and taught English there in the 1990s. Memories of his outsider status in this rapidly evolving country inform each of the short stories in “The Dog.” His protagonists range from an American exchange student to a country bumpkin living in the wealthy expat section of Beijing to a Uyghur gangster trying to maintain control of his slum. Each character is part of, but crucially alienated from, the China that presents itself to them. For Livings, this distinction is key: His fictional China has countless faces that it can show, some of them humane, others shockingly cruel, all of them worthy of a story.
Livings is at his best when he allows China to show one of its more idiosyncratic faces. The most effective story in the collection — also the only humorous narrative — charts the absurd ascendency of “the Hanfu lifestyle movement” within a competitive financial firm. “An Event at Horizon Trading Company” captures the tension between the inherent diversity of China and the government’s policy of cultural unity as employees are pressured by the firm’s Han leadership to show their national pride by wearing costumes based on Han Chinese upper-class dress from hundreds of years ago.
“There were a couple of Mongols, a guy who was half Xibe, a Uyghur, a couple Yaos, some Koreans. For a while, we even had an American. … Out of two hundred on our floor, about forty were from minority groups. The next day, every one of them showed up decked out in Hanfu.”
In retaliation, a handful of employees show up dressed in an entirely different sort of nationalistic garb. The battle between two factions for control of the trading company’s dress code comes to mirror the tension between thousands of years of tradition and a gradually modernizing communist ideology in 21st century China.
“They were wearing old-style red star liberation caps. They took off their raincoats to reveal identical olive-green Zhongshan suits with brown belts, like it was 1967 and they were off to a struggle session. They had the red patches on their collars, and Slick Lips’ red armband read ‘Smash Running Dog Capitalists!’ Copies of the Little Red Book peeked out of their chest pockets.”
Livings’ China frequently dances along the boundary between authentic and stereotype. On one hand, he sensitively describes an aging Chinese journalist’s decades-long fight to balance journalistic integrity and state censorship in “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire;” on the other, he presents the eating of dogs by squalid peasants in the titular story “The Dog” without consideration of the shop-worn racism such a plot device will conjure for his readers.
Emblematic of Livings’ vision of isolation among billions is the social segregation faced by the American protagonist of “The Pocketbook,” a melancholy narrative that may be the author’s most poignant reminiscence of how it feels to be an outsider in China.
“She realized she could have stayed out all night — handcuffed to a radiator at the [police] station, for all anyone knew — and no one would have even noticed she was gone. … It stunned her a little, the unbidden cruelty of this thought, and, lacking anyone other than herself to blame for its formation, she felt for an instant that there must be something wrong with her. So no one missed her. So no one cared. That was freedom, wasn’t it?”
Whether Livings’ prose presents an accurate image of present-day China is debatable. His accolades as a short story author far outnumber his credentials as an expert in the geography, language, culture and politics of China. As works of pure fiction, however, his stories offer substantial insight into the struggles of a diverse group of people living in rapidly changing times.
Book Review - The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings