Reviewing the Review: May 4 2008

Today’s New York Times Book Review jumps into the contemporary Chinese fiction scene, featuring Jonathan Spence on Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, Liesl Schillinger on Serve the People by Yan Lianke, Pankaj Mishra on Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Francine Prose on The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi and, finally, an intriguing endpaper by Aventurina King on a ridiculously famous and fashionable 24-year-old novelist named Guo Jingming who revels in apolitical pop culture and last year had “the highest income of any Chinese author: $1.4 million”.

It’s a great relief to see the NYTBR finally paying attention to non-English literature, though they risk inducing a certain blur effect by introducing us to five writers from China in such fast succession within a single issue. Was it Mo Yan or Wang Anyi who wrote about Mongolia? No, it was Jiang Rong. The Book Review often runs author photos (they do so for several novelists this week) and I wish they had done so for the Chinese authors here so readers could more easily sink into this too vast and too undifferentiated landscape. Instead, each of the articles are illustrated with the usual diagrammatic cartoons, and the front cover features a bland, stereotypical mountain vista that resembles a menu cover for the Chinese restaurant down the street.

But the endpaper essay is fascinating, and I’m going to check out two of the books I’ve read about here. Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, which I understand is currently very popular in China (though not as popular as Guo Jingming) expresses modern China’s yearning for its own primitive roots, manifested in an obsession with the northern lands of Inner Mongolia. Just as the 19th Century English romanticized the Scottish Highlanders and 20th Century Americans romanticized Native Americans, it appears that suburban and urban readers of this book yearn to live like the wild nomads of Mongolia. This book takes place during the surreal years of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”, and Mishra hints at Jiang Rong’s own complicity in Mao’s historic attempt to destroy all traces of native religion, native art and native culture throughout China, though the novelist (a former Red Guard, writing under a pseudonym) clearly ceased to believe in this culture-eradication program once he reached the northern lands.

Yan Lianke’s Serve The People! sounds like a rollicking satire, also set during the Cultural Revolution, and featuring an obedient Maoist true believer who is forced into an impossible choice when the wife of his Division Commander orders him into bed. Liesl Schillinger’s vivid explication makes this book sound great, and I hope I’ll like it as much as this review suggests I will.

I had more trouble with Jonathan Spence’s abstruse article on Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. There’s a whole lot of activity here regarding pig carcasses (and an awful illustration of a flying, oozing pig carcass that looks like a rejected design for a Pink Floyd concert poster). I read the article twice and I still don’t understand what this book is about. Spence’s dry, academic delivery doesn’t help. He tells us that the book’s main character transforms himself into five different animals during the course of the narrative, then remarks that “Such a fictional procedure is, of course, fraught with difficulties of tone and narration”. Indeed.

I also found myself struggling to absorb anything memorable from Francine Prose on The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. Again, reading about so many Chinese writers in such a compressed space induces dizziness, and I hope in future “international theme” issues the NYTBR editors will look for more innovative ways to help baffled readers differentiate between the choices. This difficulty in differentiation is the reader’s problem, of course, but it would be good if the Book Review anticipated this problem and tried to find structural ways to solve it.

Stepping away from China, there is also a dry and unsatisfying review of Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk by Nikolai Grozni. Amy Finnerty spends an entire page describing the events and situations in this book but never once engages with the idea of Buddhism; in fact there is no evidence that the reviewer has the slightest idea what Buddhism is. A critic with greater personal connection to the subject at hand would have helped.

Roy Blount also turns out to be a disappointing choice to review the significant new posthumous Kurt Vonnegut volume, Armageddon in Retrospect. He adopts a condescending tone towards the controversial master satirist, and barely engages (similar to Finnerty on Buddhism, above) with the book’s core idea, Vonnegut’s bitter critique of our world’s enduring love for war.

Keith Gessen does better with The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov, ending with a plea for greater public outrage at the continuing political oppressions of the Putin/Medvedev regime:

But the story does not have a happy ending — because it is happening again. Opponents of the regime are being killed; art is again dragged into conformity and the service of the state.

Finally, I’m mystified by Slate entertainment critic Troy Patterson’s nasty review of Mark Sarvas’s Harry, Revised (a book I raved about here). I was sure this novel would get a favorable review in the NYTBR, and my instincts are usually pretty good.

Troy Patterson’s reading is highly unsympathetic, and the critic does not seem to have made the necessary attempt to read the novel on its own terms. He hates the self-loathing scatalogical humor, but as I pointed it out in my article above, Harry, Revised appears to be an homage to a literary tradition of black humor — Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman — that flourished in the 1960s and 70s. Scatalogy and self-loathing were hallmarks of this tradition, as they are to a lesser extent in a broader tradition of male self-loathing that ranges from John O’Hara to John Updike to Tom Perrotta.

A critic has every right to slam Mark Sarvas for failing to live up to this tradition, if a critic thinks he fails to do so, but a critic must let the reader know what type of book the author tried to write. Patterson does not do so here. To insult the book’s obsession with bodily functions or infantile sexual humor without mentioning the obvious influence of, say, Philip Roth must leave readers wondering whether the critic even spotted the influence. In this case, something tells me Troy Patterson missed it by a mile, and this leads me to doubt that he is qualified to review this book.

Dan Wickett, commenting on this review, notes that Patterson appears in his article to be openly peeved at having to review a novel by “a blogger”. I can only assume that any New York Times Book Review critic would rise above that kind of petty attitude, so I hope this wasn’t part of the reason for this highly negative appraisal. But the sloppy, thoughtless book Troy Patterson describes is not the smart, carefully written book I read.

Despite a few sour notes, this is a very good New York Times Book Review. It’d be better if the Book Review could integrate translated and international titles into its regular flow, rather than throwing Mo Yan, Wang Anyi, Yan Lianke, Jiang Rong and Gao Xingjian at us all at once on a single Sunday and expecting us not to get dizzy. I have a hard time believing that this “China issue” will inspire many readers to rush out and buy these books, especially since after reading all these articles we feel like we’ve just read a book about China. Still, I’ve learned about some worthwhile writers I hadn’t heard of before, and that’s exactly the purpose the New York Times Book Review is meant to serve.

2 Responses

  1. China gimmick issue I see.
    China gimmick issue I see. Not about non-English, its more China hype and Olympic campaign.

    Remember Wang Shuo?

    No? Because he was boring. He was hyped and reviewed in the Times or other (Stephen King called him China’s Kerouac).

    Fact of the matter it was all hype. His book was boring.

    I’d figure the best writers in China are dead or in jail.

    “hey kids! Let’s do a China issue! That’d be cool!”

    Jon Spence is one of the great scholars of our time and a great writer in his own right. It is good to see anything by him.

    Despite my cynicism this is still appreciated and I will find this issue and read these articles.

    Contemporay zhongwen wenxue is a bit unrealistic to believe in — when presented in this context. I am sure there may be a strong one somewhere.

  2. “the book’s main character
    “the book’s main character transforms himself into five different animals during the course of the narrative, then remarks that “Such a fictional procedure is, of course, fraught with difficulties of tone and narration”. Indeed.


    “But the story does not have a happy ending — because it is happening again. Opponents of the regime are being killed; art is again dragged into conformity and the service of the state.”

    I guess the NYTBR missed the irony of this being in the same issue where they decide to focus on writers of popularity in China.

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