Collective Truth

Short Stories From the New China

Jack Livings’s debut story collection focuses on people outside the center of power to paint a subtle and convincing group portrait of China since Mao.

Kevin Frayer/Getty

Jack Livings’s first story collection, The Dog, offers up dispatches from an unsettled China, snapshots simultaneously tidily contained and generously open-ended, grounded in meticulously fashioned portraits of divers individuals in eight stories, which move back and forth through time from the death of Mao Zedong to the devastation of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. Themes of power, in all its subtly and overtly corrosive forms, runs through the collection, the ordeals of ordinary life amid corruption, endless scheming and ceaseless jockeying for position in a society rife with contradictions, but there are no outright villains in Livings’s artful depictions. “In a head-on collision, speed gave you a survival advantage,” goes a line in the collection’s final story, “Switchback, 1994,” articulating a metaphor for cultures premised on such gladiatorial values, “your momentum propelling you, like a plow parting sod, through a slower, ascending party.”

His characters stand at a remove from history’s epicenter. They are engineers, a wealthy factory owner, university teachers, a reporter at the end of his career, a young, quasi-middle class couple in Beijing, a ruthless Uyghur gangster, each in some way embodying the dislocation of life in modern China.

Livings himself spent a chunk of time in China, first as an undergraduate and then, like Train to Lo Wu author Jess Row, teaching English. Currently, his day job is as international editor for Time, Inc.; before that, he worked as editorial director of special editions for Newsweek and a contributing editor at The Paris Review, where the collection’s title story was originally published.

“There is a great deal of difference between acceptable behavior and civilized behavior,” an old man informs his young son-in-law in that story. It centers around a young Beijing couple, mismatched in social class and temperament, who learn that their racing dog, relied upon for life’s little luxuries, will be put out of business by a government gambling crackdown. In a misdirected rage at the meddling powers that be, the husband’s small-town cousin, who has been the animal’s keeper, decrees it must be eaten—“to obliterate every trace of the dog”—and then demands the relatives join in the feast.

Before learning of the dog’s grisly fate, the wife, Li Yan, wonders briefly if losing the dog isn’t a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to scale back their conspicuous consumption—new wool sweaters, long silk underwear, the microwave oven she covets. Times have changed, Li Yan muses, but it’s still unwise to inspire jealousy in one’s neighbors, even long after Deng Xiaoping’s declaration that “to get rich is glorious” became a national anthem. “They had enough to eat, a healthy child, a place to live. No one could ask for more than that,” Li Yan thinks, moments before she wakes her husband in the middle of the night to chastise him for being “too content.”

Like many of Livings’s protagonists, Li Yan and her husband, Chen Wei—gullible, excitable, too tender-hearted for the dog-eat-dog world of business and “plain as a flap of burlap”—must continually grapple for purchase as cultural sands shift in real time beneath their feet.

Raised in the capital, Li Yan sneers at her husband’s family’s rough “peasant” manners, while her own family regards her as something of a beast of burden who ought “[b]ehave like a wife.” All the tensions in their marriage come to a head in the moment in which Li Yan forcibly steps between the terrified dog and the butcher knife, and, over the next several pages, the balance of power ricochets in unexpected ways. Scarred as they may be, Livings’s characters are not pawns.

Not that their world doesn’t view them as such. “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” the collection’s longest work and a surprisingly complex exploration of the paternalistic impulse, is a brutal jewel, a painstaking accounting of the toll taken by the herculean task foisted on 64 Beijing glassworkers in 1976—creating Mao Zedong’s crystal coffin from scratch in ten months. A feat not just undertaken under pitiable working conditions—scorchingly hot, poisonously dirty—and conducted during the roiling aftershocks of a major earthquake to boot, it also proves technically impossible until the factory workers hit upon a novel approach after months of nerve-wracking failure. Unable to lean on Soviet technology in the wake of a political spat, the Party dubs the project Task One, then provides little more than exhortations like “When completion of a task requires conditions that do not exist, create proper conditions!” In contrast, Zhou Yuqing, the humble engineer charged with leading the endeavor, had begun the day of Task One’s announcement pouring over reports from the recent quake:

“He’d been instructed to make recommendations for the installation of safety glass when rebuilding efforts commenced, and though, as with most directives, this was nothing more than a cadre somewhere up the line covering his backside, Zhou would give the task his full attention. Of the hundreds of thousands dead, ten people might have died as a result of glass lacerations. But ten lives were ten lives.”

Sixty-five lives are what the sarcophagus costs. While factory workers succumb to blistered lungs, marred flesh, and nervous exhaustion, as Zhou tirelessly leads them on, his wife dies of bone cancer in the hospital across town. Their marriage stands as a testament to the sad impossibility of mind over matter, their sensitively rendered passion ultimately sublimated from beginning to end to the will of the Party. When Gu Yasheng, Zhou’s elderly right hand man and an expert welder, is elsewhere described as plying his trade “from the top to the bottom, right to left, as if composing a poem,” it’s one of many passages clarifying that the Chairman is not worthy of the artistry, the “otherworldly” marvel these workers produce.

Indeed, a strong moral impulse runs through these stories, though little moralizing, and the stories don’t march toward resolution so much as take inspiration from Chekov’s dictate that a writer’s job is to dramatize “the correct presentation” of the problem.

As such, there is a portentous quality here that can occasionally get in its own way. In a collection largely missing the knowing tone often employed in contemporary American fiction, only “An Event at Horizon Trading Company” strikes a discordant note, infusing the aesthetic of corporate satires such as Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End with unwieldy historical freight. In this exceedingly well-crafted but too-pointedly absurd story, one fence-straddling trader at an imploding Beijing firm attempts to hedge his bets in a standoff between opportunistic converts to the nationalist Hanfu movement and a contingent of facetious Red Guard supporters.

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Other stories operate with a lighter touch. Ning, the sixty-something newspaper reporter of “Mountains of Swords, Sea of Fire,” throws himself on a grenade of his own making, heartsick over 25 years of hidden guilt. In “The Pocketbook” and “The Heir,” we get two glimpses of a lawless Beijing enclave from, respectively, a privileged American pickpocketed there and the aging gangster who lords over it. Both are complicit in the surrounding violence to greater or lesser degrees, but Livings draws no straight lines, rather allowing the stories to glance meaningfully off each other. Journalistically unobtrusive, his prose nevertheless exhibits a gift for descriptions—the aftershock that becomes a “muscular flinch,” the water that forms “muddy blisters” on a courtyard floor. The stories, meanwhile, close on open notes, if not optimistic ones. In these moments, the narrative pauses to linger on a frame, to widen out, encompassing a long view that serves as a reminder that the stage is bigger than any one player believes it to be, and how we are all at sea in times not hopeful but yet still tinged with possibility.