Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I Love Dollars, Really?

By Grace

Six stories of life in China in the 1990s by author Zhu Wen. This isn't the China you see on TV, it's a country of consumerism.

Zhu Wen’s writing (well, at least Julia Lovell’s translation of it) is quite endearing, which in turn, churns out endearing protagonists.  However, whereas Wen shines in terms of endearing writing and endearing characters, he lacks in variety.  I’m conflicted even now whether to refer to the protagonist of his stories as singular or plural.  I simply cannot tell if they are supposed to different people or extensions of just one.  Also equally ambiguous is whether Zhu Wen himself is the protagonist of his stories.  There are enough similarities and contrasts to confuse me to beyond the point of caring. 

Wen’s an internal writer, seemingly allergic to too much dialogs.  It’s a strange yet effective mix of stream of consciousness and proper narration.  It can get frustrating having to be trapped inside of a character’s head, no matter how endearing they may be.  Though, this may all be part of Wen’s design.  The one-sided narration helps establish a certain fidelity to the protagonists.  For instance, in “I Love Dollars,” you’re so in the narrator’s head that absurdities such as the narrator arguing with his father that sleeping with a prostitute his daughter’s age is perfectly okay doesn’t even bother you as… absurd.  Another result of the limited narration is that it also creates the illusion that the characters have much stronger personalities than they actually do, especially in contrast to the secondary characters. 

Wen’s protagonists are endearing because they’re relatable.  And they’re relatable because of the frustrating and/or situations you see them work through.  This is the part of the review where an example of such a situation would normally be entered, however, since Wen’s stories have no real plot, it would be taking too much to extract a whole situation simply for example’s sake.

I found the enjoyability of “I Love Dollars (And Other Stories of China)” to have nothing to do with Zhu Wen or his subjects being Chinese.  Rather I found his stories enjoyable precisely because it didn’t feel so “Asian” or “Chinese.” I wouldn’t tout the book as a cultural learning tool although Lovell certainly tries.  If you want to actually enjoy the book then the translator’s preface should be skipped entirely.  Lovell’s preface is overbearing and imposes too much history on Wen’s stories.  Quotes from the preface:

“I Love Dollars” is unmistakably a product of its time, its focus on the new materialistic, libido-driven realities of 1990s China being the obvious offspring of the bewildered post-1989 climate of numb disillusionment, cynicism, and commercialization...”

“By the close of the first two paragraphs, Zhu Wen’s strait talking narrator-a swaggering, sex-obsessed writer who shunts his women out the door once he’s got what he wants from them - has given his readers the measure of the brave new world of the 1990s.”

Blah blah blah. Just skip it. 

To read or not to read: Wen is stylistically interesting enough to read but from an airport reading standpoint, “I Love Dollars” is best taken one story at a time.  Trying to go through all of the stories in succession gets tedious and can leave you a little unsatisfied as none of his stories have closure. 3 out of 5 stix.

[Reviewer’s Note:  They say reading is supposed to be stimulating and “exercise” for your brain.  Then reading I Love Dollars is like fornicating with the same person.  In five whole positions: “I Love Dollars”, “A Hospital Night”, “A Boat Crossing”, “Wheels”, “Ah, Xiao Xie”, and “Pounds, Ounces, Meat"… but with no great climax.  This isn’t a review dedicated to connecting sexual acts to the book, but it fits.]

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