Wednesday, July 03, 2024

41. The Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

The Economist had a podcast series called The Prince that went deep into the background of China's Xi Jinping.  It was excellent and led me to their follow-up series on China called Drum Tower, which is also quite good though a bit meandering and judgemental at times.  I was tempted to subscribe but am already overwhelmed with podcast and print content.  They recommended this book as a really good and interesting snapshot into modern China.  I found it at half-price books.

This kind of fiction is just not for me.  Let me start off by saying that it is well-crafted and a couple of the stories were quite good.  It comes from what I call The New Yorker school of short fiction, which is stories where not much happens and end on an ambivalent note that is supposed to give you some kind of feeling which makes upper middle class people feel that they are clever.  I have not read enough of these kinds of stories to know if they all have to be mildly depressing but I think that is also generally expected, as happiness and things working out isn't considered deep by anxious grad students.  The stories in the Land of Big Numbers were all mildly depressing.  What was really damning, though, is that I didn't feel that I really got that much of a better understanding of modern China.  This felt very much like the western judgement of all the flaws of modern China: quaint villages with traditions destroyed for crass wealth and modernity, the controlling but bumbling state apparatus and so on.

China has issues for sure, but I am sure there is a lot of good stuff about life there and I would have much preferred at least one or two stories of what is the good life in China today.  This all felt like a western visitor who was steeped in daily life but didn't actually grow up in China and is approaching it (and the writing) with an a priori critique.  There are many moments of local life that are interesting and did give an excellent sense of the day-to-day.  Two stories, one about a new fruit that has almost magical properties and the other about people stuck in a subway platform, were really good.  But the rest kind of bummed me out.  The worst one was about a young Chinese-American nurse travelling around the Grand Canyon with her douchebag outdoorsy American long-term boyfriend.  Oh boo hoo your boyfriend may be cheating on you and doesn't listen but you'll probably marry him anyways. 

I should have known but I have a vague memory that it was suggested this book was vaguely science fiction or some stories set in the near future and that sucked me in.  Also, the slick trade dress seduced me.  It was a quick read, the prose being tight and flowing and I finished it while stuck in traffic trying to get on the Lions Gate Bridge, so I appreciate it for that, but otherwise just not my jam at all.

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