by Lisa Peet
In a 2004 The Paris Review Art of Fiction interview, Tobias Wolff gave a thoughtful and expansive interview, talking at length about his writing process and mentioning ten months he had just spent in Rome:
So living abroad is in some way inspirational?
Not in the sense that I’ll necessarily write about the place I’m in—we spent a year in both Berlin and Mexico and I still haven’t set anything there. But just the breaking out, the newness of things, the having to struggle a bit, all that is bracing.
What will set off a work about Berlin or Mexico?
I don’t know. It usually takes years for me to catch up to places I’ve been. In Pharaoh’s Army was published 26 years after I got back from Vietnam. This Boy’s Life—again, about 25 years after I had left Washington State. Now I don’t have that kind of time to play with. I’m 58 and I can’t wait 25 more years. So I hope that my stories will suggest themselves a little more quickly.
As it so happened, Wolff’s interviewer, the magazine’s contributing editor Jack Livings, knew a thing or two about needing to catch up to a place before writing about it. At the time, Livings was a few years into a series of short stories set in China, where he had lived as an undergraduate in 1994. That one year—and a subsequent visit in 1997—burrowed into Livings’s literary consciousness, took hold, and proceeded to percolate through his work for the next two decades. Eventually those stories were consolidated into his 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize prize-winning debut collection, The Dog.
Livings had just turned 20 when he arrived in Beijing. “I didn’t speak the language very well, couldn’t read a street sign, and didn’t understand the culture. It shocked my system in the best possible way.”
He began writing about China some seven years after he returned to the States; slowly at first, then picking up speed. “Early on, I worried about getting every little fact right,” he said in a 2014 interview with Oscar Villalon in Zyzzyva.
“I’d try to check the angle of the sun on a given day in Beijing in 1994, and find out whether or not there would be shadows, or was it partly cloudy that day, and if so, at what time, and on and on. Rarely would any of this intense research find its way into a story. What I realize now is that I was learning the landscape through research. . . . Once I understood how this fictional world operated, I could subvert it, and by the time I was writing the last few stories, I wasn’t so wound up about every little detail. The tone was looser, and the language relaxed to let a little more air in.”
The Dog’s eight stories cluster at the more familiar end of Chinese history: post-Cultural Revolution, post-Mao. But although the stories are written by an American for a Western audience, this is not a portrait of an Open-door China brightly lit by progress and McDonald’s. Livings’s Beijing has no allegorical agenda. Rather, the workers, outlaws, bosses, journalists, and one hapless American college student who populate The Dog operate in corners that don’t let in a lot of light; each story bears its own whiff of dust, rot, and more than a hint of menace.
The book’s underlying tension comes not from individuals endlessly pushing back against the machine of state. Rather, each player in The Dog is straining, in ways large and small, to metabolize that machine—to absorb the everyday contradictions of unwieldy authority and get on with their work, their lives. The low tide of a great bureaucracy leaves behind constraint, fear, a fossilized caste system, and, in the end, a crust of absurdity. This absurdity is the main affliction of Livings’s characters—some of it laughable, much of it soul-crushing. It does not make for happy lives, but it does make for some very good stories.
Absurdity, of course, needs both compassion and a sense of realism to keep it from edging over into slapstick. Livings excels on both counts; his love of research notwithstanding, it’s clear that he deeply internalized the landscape and people in the short time he was there, and has burnished his memories—as writers, fortunately, do—in his absence.
The collection’s title story, “The Dog,” published in The Paris Review in 2005 and included in Best American Short Stories 2006, sets the book’s tone. Li Yan and Chen Wei, a young couple with a baby girl, occupy a sort of tolerable middle ground, neither happy nor particularly unhappy together, not well-off but not poor, either—this last due in part to a racing dog Chen Wei owns with his thuggish Cousin Zheng. “It had provided them the spoils of a wealthier household—new wool sweaters, silk long underwear, and a grass-stroke scroll depicting the character for good luck, which hung opposite their bed. Chen Wei said the scroll spoke to him. Li Yan thought a microwave would have made better sense.”
But when the Beijing municipal government cracks down on dog racing, the dog becomes not just a liability but an embarrassment. Zheng announces that he will hold a barbecue for the family, and they will eat the dog.
This is not the 1930s, mind you—Li Yan’s English studies book contains the phrase “I would like to buy a computer.” Zheng’s decision to eat the dog is his anachronistic fuck-you to fate, but it also bears the strong taint of otherness that drifts like fog through the book, and that gives texture and flavor to every scene in each of the book’s stories. The settings, the people, and the customs are not exotica trotted out to shock or impress, but—even as viewed through the eyes of Livings’s characters, all but one of whom are Chinese—offer a full-on rattling of the senses, much like what its author must have experienced at 20. From “The Pocketbook”’s brash, clueless American college student:
In the market, strings of lightbulbs hung between vendors’ stands, snaking around skeletal trees and up electric poles. The street was choked with smoke, and she couldn’t hear herself think for the cacophony of transistor radios, searing meat, motor scooters, the frenzy of vendors screaming into the crowd. Teenage lovers took advantage of the tight crowd to press against each other as they moved slowly up and down the road. Claire wondered what it said about the Chinese that at the end of the day they repaired to this clanging cowbell of a settlement to unwind.
Claire remains stubbornly unenlightened. Livings’s intrepid reader, on the other hand, is offered a more panoramic view. There is Yang from “Donate!”, for instance, co-owner of a successful factory, who is put upon by increasingly ridiculous charity requests in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake:
Chief Zhou had ordered a massive sign erected outside the zone gates listing, by order of size of donation, the twenty-seven companies located within. The names were in blocky script on a grid, framed on either side by cascading yellow and red bunting, the board rising to a height of two stories above the sidewalk. Included was each company’s phone number and the exact amount, to the fen, donated to the earthquake victims. Passersby stood in front of the sign and dialed the listed companies, yelling indignantly at whoever picked up.
And, no less powerful for his marginal status, there is Omar the Uyghur gangster from “The Heir,” ruling over the marketplace slum known as Uyghurville:
He wore large square sunglasses, a blindingly white skullcap, patent leather shoes. On this particular night, he was engulfed by a double-breasted suit that hung on him like a hospital gown. A small velvet bag filled with his enemies’ gold teeth chattered in his pocket. His capos trailed behind him, and behind them, a few little boys, like gulls in the wake of a garbage scow, worrying the men for betel nuts.
“The Dog,” fortunately, is not the story of a greyhound barbecue. Rather, Livings uses the situation—ridiculous and weird to Western readers and only slightly less so to his characters—to paint an evocative picture of a not-quite-disappeared China, and of poverty, of life’s hardness, and of the gradually widening rifts between Li Yan and Chen Wei. While there is affection between them, there is also a deep-seated vein of scorn: she finds him passive, he smolders at her insults. Zheng may be a boor and a bully, Li Yan thinks, but “People forced to survive on ingenuity and pure will seemed to have luck on their side. She herself could never envy Zheng, but she thought her husband ought to.”
But there is love in Livings’s stories as well. The collection’s excellent linchpin, “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” is a tale of the months just after Mao Zedong’s death in which a cadre of workers at Beijing’s Glass Institute were charged to create a crystal sarcophagus for the Chairman—a seemingly impossible task that they were nonetheless expected to complete. The protagonist, Zhou Yuqing, is Livings’s creation, but the story of Mao’s crystal coffin is true. In a 2014 The Wall Street Journal China Real Time interview, he explained,
I started with some oral histories from three glassworkers who were involved in the project that were in places contradictory. They were all speaking in that super-red hero-of-the-revolution language and were very proud of the work they had done.
I read about the embalming process Mao went through. I read old patents and applications from the ’30s. I worked on it for about a year and half, and about eight months in, when I thought I had it down, the Shanghai government released some top-secret information about Shanghai factories’ work on the coffin, which no one had ever referenced before. When that turned up, I just tried to make it all work together while keeping the essential center of the story factual. All the research contradicted itself at every turn.
The story is bleak and anxious. Mao’s death has not yet obviated his party line, and Zhou and his fellow workers set to their preposterous assignment without question. His former teacher, Gu Yasheng, is pulled out of retirement to work on the project, and as the months stretch out without success his team endures burns, explosions, crippling exhaustion, ruined lungs, and the loss of loved ones. Teacher Gu’s gloves constantly catch fire as he works with the molten glass, but he barely stops working, just letting his coworkers train a hose on them. “In no hurry, he turned his hands in the water, as if rinsing them after a wash. He’d been on fire plenty of times.”
“The Crystal Sarcophagus” is a vivid, visceral illustration of the ways that the state can subsume and break a man. But for all its (literal) pyrotechnics, it’s a postage stamp that ultimately breaks the reader’s heart. Over the course of their marriage, Zhou and his beloved Lan Baiyu have been separated for more time than they’ve lived together. When she is sent to the May 7 Cadre School in Shandong Province for eight months,
every week a letter had come bearing stamps depicting Iron Man Wang Jinxi, vanguard fighter of the Chinese working class. She’d never been shy with him, and the stamp was a private joke, after she’d one night in bed called Zhou an iron man. Political monitors read everything, so they filled their letters with revolutionary prose glorifying the workers and praising the wisdom of the peasants. Some of her letters were nothing more than long excerpts of the Chairman’s poetry or admonitions to wage revolution with all his vigor. Neither Comrade Zhou Yuqing nor Lan Baiyu existed in those letters. The stamps carried all their passion and longing, more than they’d have been able to confess to each other had they been face-to-face.
In 2005, Livings—still working at The Paris Review, before beginning what would be a successful editorial career at Newsweek and then Time, Inc.—interviewed Salman Rushdie. Rushdie touched on issues of exile, and had much to say on the subject of writing about places far from the one you may be sitting in.
The accidents of my life have given me the ability to make stories in which different parts of the world are brought together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes both—usually both. The difficulty in these stories is that if you write about everywhere you can end up writing about nowhere. It’s a problem that the writer writing about a single place does not have to face.
. . .
How would you describe what you do?
My life has given me this other subject: worlds in collision. How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story?
Livings, whose marvelous and well-received collection of China stories was still ten years away, must surely have been nodding.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features