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Book Review: The Dog

By (August 2, 2014) No Comment

The Dog: Storiesthe dog cover

by Jack Livings

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014

 

Jack Livings has written a debut collection of short stories called The Dog, and it comes pre-loaded with some choice advance blurbs, including one by Kurt Anderson saying these stories succeed in “making the exotic familiar and the ordinary otherworldly.” This is intriguing not only because it hints at the collection’s unusual setting – modern-day China – but also, more importantly, because Anderson is no mean carpenter of fiction himself, and not of the airy, navel-gazing stuff coming out of Williamsburg in such alarming quantities these days. For all we know, Livings and Anderson might be pretentious pool-hall buddies or the blurb done blind to pay off a beer tab, but on the surface, at least, it bodes well for Livings’s first collection.

 

And it’s born out by the eight stories gathered in The Dog; this is fine, unpretentious writing with frequent very memorable turns of phrase. The world of contemporary China is served up here warts and all, which almost invariably has the effect – perhaps not fully intended, doubtless not fully helpful – of making it seem at times uncannily recognizable to Western readers, which might be why Livings seems so persistently to pole his way against that tide; his stories are full of touchstone human archetypes – wives desperately unhappy with their loutish husbands, older generations disappointed with the nervy modernity of younger generations – carefully counter-weighted into the unfamiliar. The crusty old newspaper reporter in “Mountains of Swords, Sea of Fire,” for instance, is a well-known figure, but the mockery he receives from one of his younger colleagues is given a Confucian cast:

“Of course you don’t,” she said. “How inconsiderate of the rest of the company to communicate in such a manner. I’ll draft a memo immediately and have a copyboy rush it down. Shall I have the little urchin rinse your inkpot and wash your brushes while he’s at it?”

Likewise the gangster kingpin in “The Heir” will be instantly recognizable to Western readers for his ruthlessness and his contempt for his gay grandson, but the perfectly-chosen little details open windows to a very different world, one in which, for instance, he tucks his hands into his jacket when he sleeps “in case a hungry rat picked up the smell of food on his fingers.”

 

Livings tends to anchor his tales in the vantage points of characters whose cynicism about the excesses of Chinese cultural weirdness will serve to anchor well-intentioned readers who have the misfortune to be from Iowa. In one of the collection’s most mordant and impressive stories, “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” the main character Zhou is distracted from his boring work researching details of the cataclysmic Tangshan earthquake by the death of Charmain Mao, a cataclysmic earthquake in its own right that obliges him to watch the reaction of a Youth League member upon hearing the Chairman’s speeches read out:

Her cheeks glistened and her chest heaved as she struggled against her benchmate, who had to embrace her to keep her from tumbling onto the floor. As Zhou sat down, the woman’s mouth opened in an anguished rictus, the cords of her neck taut, he incisors bared. She howled like an injured animal. Zhou looked down at the table and studied the backs of his hands. She was right to display her sorrow, he just wished she wasn’t so close to him. It was horrible to see anyone in such pain. Poor sad rabbit, he thought.

“Poor sad rabbit” might be something a character like Zhou could think, but like so many of Livings’s wry central figures, he could hardly speak such thoughts without risking a great deal. Some variation on this inner heresy runs through all of these stories, and it gives fascinating twists to even some of the most predictable passages, like the narrator’s diatribe against an irritating co-worker in “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”:

His favorite saying was, “I’m not here to make friends,” and by any measure he’d succeeded wildly. He spoke to his subordinates as if addressing dementia patients. When in the presence of a superior, he was the first to throw blame onto an absent colleague. Naturally, he was a rabid nationalist.

There’s more cruelty than humor in these stories and much more hangdog defeatism than heroism, and in those proportions Livings might be providing a more accurate reflection of life in modern China than most current sociology textbooks. In this it strongly resembles Mark Salzman’s excellent and best-selling 1986 book Iron and Silk, which likewise tried to show its readers some snapshots of an unpredictable and very human China. Salzman went on to prove less adept at longer narratives, so it remains to be seen whether or not Livings has a novel in him. More stories as good as these would be plenty enjoyable enough.

 

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