Part three of my China novels review (which was published in the Chicago Tribune Saturday 6.7.08), an uncomfortable look at a China mad for money.
I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China
By Zhu Wen
Translated by Julia Lovell
Penguin; 228 pages; $14
Zhu Wen’s pithy title “I Love Dollars” belies a collection of novella and stories that are often ugly, violent, and distasteful. His skilled writing doesn’t offend, but the subject matter does, which is exactly Zhu’s intention, revealing that the exposed underbelly of China’s rampant materialism isn’t at all pleasant.
Zhu’s critique of China’s post-‘80s love of dollars is unmistakable in his title novella, featuring a heartless man fulfilling his filial duties by securing a prostitute for his visiting father, but actually assuaging his own sex “madness” and desire to spend and consume. The tale’s saving grace is the narrative irony in his obviously lost and pitiful nature.
The other stories in the collection more subtly address consumerism while drawing attention to a generation of youth lacking values; a health care system catering only to the rich; the fruitlessness of work at an “iron rice bowl,” or as a traveling universal battery salesman in “A Boat Crossing”; and men hiding from responsibility or solving life’s problems through violence.
Each showcases Zhu’s signature first-person style, embedded dialogue and relentless conversations, and illuminates relationships bereft of emotional connection. But only the spare, intriguing “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” is refreshingly provocative without being repellent, detailing a normal but bizarre afternoon when a young couple try to ascertain if the butcher has cheated them, but are confounded by translating metric into the English measurement system.
Though one may not want to inhabit Zhu’s fictional worlds for long, his argument is incontrovertible—China is sick with greed since joining the world’s “one enormous mall,” and even “a mere boiler serviceman in an electrical factory, can sense that we’re freewheeling helplessly, inexorable toward some kind of doomsday.”