Our latest review is of I Love Dollars by Chinese author Zhu Wen, and translated by Julia Lovell. This first came out in hardcover from Columbia University Press in 2006, and more recently was published in paperback by Penguin. We’ve been meaning to review it for ages—anything tagged as “a Chinese Larry David” catches my eye. Emily Shannon—who was an Open Letter intern over the summer—wrote this piece.
Zhu Wen’s book of stories, I Love Dollars, established him as a pivotal figure in Chinese literature of the 1990s. As a part of the New Generation, these writers seek to produce a new literature in the post-Mao era, one that conveys nihilistic characters in a hedonistic society and reflects the capitalistic society of China—writing for money, knowing what kind of literature sells and what does not.
Zhu Wen started writing fiction while working in a thermal power plant, a job he eventually quit to become a freelance writer. Zhu Wen’s writing developed during a transitional phase of Chinese authors in the post-Mao era: from the 1980s intellectually elitist to the 1990s commercialism. These writers embraced the Chinese ideal: wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” where “future” can be replaced by “money”).
In the title story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator’s father comes to visit him, just to check up on him and his brother, for whom they spend much of the story in search. While the narrator’s father is visiting, his son takes it upon himself to give his father a visit he won’t forget, which involves getting his father laid. One might find it rather shocking for a son to be concerned with his father’s sex life, but this narrator knows no boundaries. While out with his father, he sets about on the task of finding a woman to please him. His plans do not always work out in the end, whether it is due to the lack of money or his father’s own refusal.
The narrator of “I Love Dollars” represents the writers who embraced the money-centric ideal described above. The narrator of this title story is also a writer, paid to write his stories, and as long as he continues to get paid, he’ll continue to write the kind of fiction that sells. “Keep the dollars flying at him, and inspiration will never dry up,” he says. His father, on the other hand, does not agree with the kind of material he uses in his writing. “A writer ought to offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom.” The narrator claims, “It’s all there in sex.” This spat between father and son is similar to the political orthodoxy that was forced upon writers in the early 1990s. The establishment apostles of political correctness called for “cultural works that reflect socialism, give expression to communist ideals and the spirit of the social age . . . and that can fill people with enthusiasm and create unity among the masses.” The narrator’s father wants his son to write something inspiring; not mind candy. Perhaps when the narrator says democracy and freedom are there in sex suggests that this society is obsessed with sex. A novel from another Chinese writer might support this idea.
The Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa (1993) is a sexually explicit novel about a male writer’s “spermatic journey through the spiritual corruption of contemporary China.” It was a best-seller, showing that sex and sensation made high sales. So perhaps China’s capitalist nation—with its slogan of always working to make a profit—perhaps the idea of writing salable fiction is a part of the freedom allotted to a nation that is about making a profit. The narrator of “I Love Dollars” might then have a point when he says democracy and freedom and ideals are in the sex he writes about and are what help him gain a buck.
The narrator may have a point, and it may be easy to write him off as unappealing—he is a self-involved, sex-obsessed man. “Whenever I met a woman I’d set about getting her into bed immediately.” He claims his libido is a “sickness,” (not to worry, “the symptoms are never anymore intrusive than those of a common cold”). As unlikable as he may be, he is completely harmless, and Zhu Wen’s sardonic tone adds an amusing note to the stories.
In “A Boat Crossing,” the narrator is waiting at a dock for his boat to arrive and take him to another island. While there, he is in the presence of two men whom he cannot get to leave: Qi and Chen. When he finally gets on the boat, he finds himself in another uncomfortable situation where his sketchy cabin-mates leave him feeling mistrustful and paranoid. Throughout the rest of the story, there is one uncomfortable situation after another with curious encounters from characters that the narrator finds to be most obnoxious, and from whom he cannot escape. The ill fortune of Zhu Wen’s narrator in “A Boat Crossing” is given a bit of Kafka-esque paranoia. While there is an irritated tone to the narrator’s voice, the reader feels a bit of sympathy for him, while still chuckling to himself.
With a humorous and entertaining style, the narrator of “Wheels” tells about an incident that happened to him six years ago when he was riding his bike to work. A mob of men claim he knocked into their old man, paralyzing his left arm, but they barely fool him as the old man often forgets which arm is hurt, let alone that he is in pain. The old man and his “bloodsucking relatives” insist on a hospital checkup. “Not just a regular checkup, a full checkup, in which it was discovered the old man had a tumor in his stomach the size of a broad bean.” The narrator does not get rid of this mob as easily as he would have hoped, and even after the checkup, there is a ransom of 3,000 yuan “and the whole thing’s out of his hands.” In the end, the narrator is on his last nerve and he releases his pent up aggression from this mob out on a restaurant owned by one of them.
Zhu Wen’s narrators have a conversationalist tone that absorbs the reader into the world of the characters. While their actions and beliefs (particularly those in “I Love Dollars”) may be unlikable, the reader is still sucked in to the funny and peculiar world of the characters. They are each faced with some mishap that leaves them searching for a way out of it throughout the whole story. It is one thing after another that leaves them feeling irritable and hopeless, and the reader begins to wonder why and how these characters can have such bad luck. Zhu Wen’s witty and comical voice gives it a light mood, reassuring his audience that the stories are still enjoyable.
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