Mini-reviews of recent reads
I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.
China Dream by Ma Jian
Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.
Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.
But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.
Ma Daode is a revolting figure, and Ma Jian doesn’t spare the reader in his depictions of the horribleness of the character’s official and personal actions. He’s not drawn with sympathy, but he’s compelling. The parallels between the current China Dream-seeking government and Mao’s Cultural Revolution are hammered home in scenes set in the present and the past. Some readers who have read more of Ma Jian’s work have described this as a lesser novel, but I found it powerful and chilling.
Newcomer by Keigo Higashino
This is a police procedural mystery which readers have described as a cozy, but I’m on the fence about how well it fits in that category The story revolves around the murder of a woman who lives on her own and seems to have few friends, but also no enemies. The novel is broken into long chapters, with each chapter being from the perspective of a person or family group who are either connected to the victim or who provide information about the events surrounding the murder. Detective Kaga visits each of these groups and pieces together what happened.
There is almost no on-page detail about the murder and the focus is on the investigation; each chapter provides insights into family and social conditions and brings to light family squabbles and secrets. There is an emphasis on the way murder affects more than just the victim, and therefore justice is about more than bringing the murderer to book.
The English of the translation is informal and often slangy, which may be an accurate representation of the original text. It’s mostly US slang but occasionally lapses into Britishisms, which I found disconcerting, but for the most part it worked for me.
Higashino is a bestselling author in Japan and this novel was nominated for an Edgar award. It was my first by him, and it seems to have been a good place to start. I’ll definitely be reading more.
Lanny by Max Porter
This is Porter’s second novel; his debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers was widely praised. It was an unusual novel in style and substance, but it definitely hit a chord. Lanny is also stylistically experimental, with the physical layout playing an important part in how the text is consumed. The titular character is a young boy who has moved to an English village with his parents. The family is one of the many who have turned rural villages with proximity to London into commuter towns. The father is mostly absent and the mother works at home, writing her first thriller novel.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, including that of Dead Papa Toothwort, a supernatural figure who has lived in the village essentially for eternity and is both protector of and danger to Lanny. In the corporeal world, Lanny is befriended by Pete, a famous local artist, and the develop a strong bond. But when Lanny goes missing, Pete becomes the prime suspect, the villagers alternate between sympathizing and criticizing the parents, and all the cracks in the community start to show.
This is a fable about childhood that draws on English literary traditions, especially those of pastoral landscapes populated by faeries and the “Green Man”. The countryside as refuge theme is a popular one in UK literary fiction right now, but here it is turned into something of a Brexit novel, because the villagers are overwhelmingly xenophobic, unwelcoming, and nasty. It read like a cross between Middle Earth and The Casual Vacancy but featuring your least favorite Brexiteers. That said, the parents don’t come off well either, especially the commuter-financial-drone father. Only Lanny whom one reviewer acutely termed a manic pixie dream-child) and Pete the artist are positively depicted.
I’ve been trying to understand why this novel has received so many rave reviews. Stylistically it’s very impressive, so if that accomplishment overrides its faults for a reader, that makes sense to me. The language, especially in the passages about the countryside, is often beautiful, and the Dead Papa Toothwort character comes to frightening and powerful life. His narrative sections are probably the best part of the book. But the real-world characters and setting are so stereotypical as to be eye-rolling. The villagers reminded me of a Midsomer Murders community played straight. And the fragments of speech that Toothwort hears reproduce every Leave and xenophobe stereotype you’ve heard. I’ve seen several comparisons to Reservoir 13 in reviews, but the only commonality is the importance of the natural world. Where McGregor’s novel was warm and empathetic, this is angry and mean-spirited, taking repeated swings at low-hanging fruit. I’m fine with angry, but I prefer to leave mean-spirited at the door.
I can sympathize with the desire to read novels that articulate the anger and frustration that so many citizens feel today, and this book certainly delivers that. But the populist demagogues have been not just ascendant, but winning, for over a decade now. Preaching to the choir is surely past its sell-by date at this point, at least it should be if we want to effect positive change.