Te-Ping Chen's debut story collection Land of Big Numbers started out strong and ended with a mind-blowing parable that knocked my socks off.
I read the first story through BookishFirst and put in my name for the ARC. Set in China, twins go on separate life paths, the bright and driven girl challenging government repression, the boy excelling in competitive video gaming. A reversal of expectations challenges our values.
The stories are revelatory about life in modern China and the expat experience. I was unsettled by the portrait of life in China, seemingly normal people doing seemingly normal things, and yet so much at odds with American expectations.
The generational divide shows up clearly. The older characters had lived hard lives of manual labor and poverty. Some hold onto fantasies of achievement and acceptance into the Party. Their children become teenage factory workers in the city or hope for a rich benefactor or play the stock market dreaming of easy money.
It is a world at once very familiar--and very alien. The details are different, but the human experience universal.
All around Zhu Feng, it seemed, people were buying, buying, homes and stocks and second and third houses; there was a whole generation who'd gotten rich and needed to buy things for their kids, and the same dinky things from before didn't pass muster: penny rides on those plastic cartoon figures that flashed lights and gently rocked back and forth outside of drugstores; hawthorn impaled on ticks and sheathed in frozen yellow sugar casings, a cheap winter treat. They needed to buy because they had the money and that's what everyone else was doing...Also, the government said it was the buying opportunity of a generations...China was going up and up and nobody wanted to be left behind."~from Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
The last story Guebeikou Spirit is amazing, a parable that reaches past it's setting to alert against the lure of complacence that becomes complicity. Characters become stranded on a new high-speed train station after trains pass them buy. Regulations state that passengers must depart from a different station than they entered, and so they remain.
Every day they hear the announcement that the train is delayed. The guards reassure, "we'll get there together," as they bring in food, blankets, personal health supplies, and as weeks go on, televisions and coloring books.
The stranded people become a media sensation and the organize to represent "Gubeikuo Spirit." Several dissident young men try to follow the train tracks to another station, but always return and finally give up. The outside world's hardships come through the television news. They become comfortable so that when a train finally stops, they are unwilling to leave.
Obedience to an illogical rule, becoming comfortable leading to the loss of volition and self-determination--it's a powerful message.
Te-Ping Chen is a marvelous writer and I look forward to reading more from her pen.
I received an ARC from the publisher through BookishFirst and an egalley through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.