Book review: The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 7:52am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 10:54am

The Dog: Stories
by Jack Livings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Disregarding his own health, and barely able to visit his dying wife in hospital, Zhou Yuqing sacrifices everything in an attempt to finish Mao Zedong's crystal sarcophagus in time for the opening of his mausoleum in 10 months' time.

It is a herculean task, but in late 1976, with the Communist Party the ultimate power in China, Zhou has little choice but to struggle against the seemingly impossible task demanded by his superiors, while performing weekly self-criticisms to take the blame for the regular setbacks experienced by his team.

Zhou is the main character of The Crystal Sarcophagus, the centrepiece of Jack Livings' series of short stories which, when combined, tell a powerful tale of post-Mao China.

Within the pages of Livings' debut book, the everyday struggles of a handful of Chinese men and women take on an almost poetic tone. At their core, each of the eight stories is a simple vignette, often little more than a beautifully crafted scene - yet somehow they manage, together, to reveal the plentiful contradictions at play within Chinese society.

In Donate, a factory boss struggles with societal pressures to publicly give money following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. As others pledge money and reap the prestige, Boss Yang, a former peasant, quietly donates his own money and blood but refuses to give funds through official channels, knowing it will line the pockets of officials. He risks being publicly lambasted yet sits at his desk every day, refusing to answer the calls of the local party official while the injustices of modern society makes him seethe.

In An Event at Horizon Trading Company, a firm is torn apart as uncertainties about its future lead traders to try to curry favour by picking sides between a group who reminisce over the old glory days of ancient China - even going so far as to dress in robes - and those who mockingly retaliate by dressing as revolutionary Red Guards and shouting communist slogans.

One trader tries to straddle the fence, buying both outfits and trying to hold off making a decision on which to wear. His unwillingness to stand up and follow his own conviction - to wear his normal suit and just get on with his work - touches on the difficulty many in China feel about breaking from the crowd and thereby exposing themselves to danger.

In The Heir, we get a glimpse of the distrust and unbalanced relationship between the Han Chinese and the minority communities, as an elderly Uygur gangster strikes fear into his neighbours yet has to watch as police beat his grandson.

With the exception of The Crystal Sarcophagus, the stories in The Dog are all set in near-contemporary China, in the mountain roads of Tibet and in the streets, markets and factories of Beijing. Few of the stories have a resolution, but that's not the point; Livings is more focused on painting vivid scenes that will immediately immerse his readers in the often unfamiliar world before them.

In The Dog: Stories, Livings has proved himself to be a masterful storyteller, creating evocative characters that exist in richly described worlds. He has drawn on his previous experiences as an undergraduate and language teacher to invent characters who at once speak volumes about the many small-scale struggles occurring in China today. It is an impressive debut to say the least.