The eight lively and humorous stories Zhu Wen offers his readers in this collection depict the troubled lives of Mainland urban professionals. His protagonists are often engineers (Zhu worked as an electrical engineer), old enough to remember Tiananmen Square and critical of authorities, but primarily concerned with climbing the professional ladder. The best of these politically edged tales concern friendships, or, more interestingly, relationships that do not quite reach friendship.
In the opener (“Da Ma’s Way of Talking”), for instance, an unnamed narrator recalls his fellow schoolmate and military trainee when he dates a young woman who uses precisely the same distinctive kinds of profanity. She claims never to have met Da Ma, yet the narrator cannot let this coincidence rest. The narrator’s efforts to get to the heart of this linguistic mystery reveal Da Ma as a colorfully annoying character whom everyone — except perhaps the narrator — comes to hate, and with good reason,
More often, it is the narrator himself who is a lowlife playing the system. Such a character is at the center of “The Matchmaker,” a gem of a story concerning a star engineering student, Li Zi, and the sullen underachiever who rides his coattails. Ten years after graduation, Li Zi is the narrator’s supervisor, trying to find a spouse for his unwilling underling and offering unwanted personal advice: “a cow delivering a slow pompous lecture.” Meanwhile, the narrator spends his off-hours with his lover, who insists they read dramatic scenes of conflicted passion to one another: Scarlett and Rhett, Hamlet and Ophelia.
Zhu’s gift for plotting is brilliant. In his best stories, he appears to be telling you one compelling story while ultimately revealing an even better one embedded within. In “Xiao Liu” we hear the story of a water-pressure pump installer, told by his much younger assistant. As Xiao’s life falls apart during the Cultural Revolution — he loses his job and his family — we become more and more aware of the part he has played in keeping the narrator’s life intact. “Reeducation” envisions a fantasy scenario where the entire graduating class of 1989 (the year of the Tiananmen demonstrations) is called back to school 10 years later for Operation Rebake, a punitive program where the government will work at “forging us into rustless screws.” The resulting dreamlike trip to their alma mater opens an intriguing second level of understanding at odds with that of the disaffected narrator.
Since 2000, Zhu has branched into filmmaking, and “The Matchmaker’s” language is often cinematic and evocative. For instance, he writes: “The Nanjing summer has a talent for making you feel like an internal organ — hot, sticky, visceral, the blood pulsing through you — trapped inside the crowded, overheated body of the city.” We could almost be back in the opening frames of John Huston’s “Chinatown.” Zhu’s stories are beautifully translated by Julia Lovell. They are funny, complex, fantastic and true.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.