Te-Ping Chen's sophisticated and startling debut story collection "Land of Big Numbers" focuses on characters who don't quite understand the people in their lives, whether friends, ex-lovers, family or co-workers. For example, in "Lulu" a brother struggles in school while his brilliant twin sister's high scores on the college entrance examination have made her the pride of their parents.
When the sister begins to post news items about human rights abuses across China, the tables are turned as she eventually runs afoul of authorities. Meanwhile, the brother becomes a champion video game player. On a flight to an international tournament, the brother reflects, "I prayed for victory, and hoped that she would be proud."
Chen's stories often hinge on this kind of irony, where dreams come true but at an unexpected cost. For example, in "Hotline Girl," a woman working at a government-run help line gets a call from her abusive ex-boyfriend, now in the capital, trying to seek compensation for his parents' forced relocation. At first she offers bromides about government compensation, but upon meeting him she discovers he has also lost his arm in a factory accident.
Chen is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, formerly based in Beijing and Hong Kong, now living in the United States. In all of her stories, the characters have wounds, and then even deeper wounds, ones that cannot be easily compensated for. In the title story, a man taking ever bigger risks on the stock market inadvertently uncovers his staid father's idealistic past as a protester. But unlike his father, he is driven by a reckless optimism that has caused him to embezzle company funds to invest in the market: "The world was a profusion of opportunities waiting to be unfolded, he thought as he drifted off to sleep. He need only to stretch out his hand."
In Chen's tour de force, "Gubeikou Spirit," a group of passengers is stranded in a subway station, at first for a few hours, then days, and then in a surreal stretch, they are left in the station for months. Officials bring in food and mattresses and a giant TV, while guards prevent them from leaving.
The passengers debate what to do: to obey authorities and stay or try to escape and perhaps face punishment. One man insists, "The nation is watching us. … We need to be role models." The story could be a metaphor for stalled reforms or simply an observation of the human condition.
All but one of Chen's stories are set in China, but her depictions of human frailty and hope are universal: How many people in any nation are brave enough or foolish enough to reject security to seek out the unknown?
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, "Useful Phrases for Immigrants."
Land of Big Numbers
By: Te-Ping Chen.
Publisher: Mariner Books, 256 pages, $15.99.