The New York Times
The Banquet Bug: A Novelby Geling Yan
From the acclaimed author of The Lost Daughter of Happiness comes a groundbreaking novel that will introduce readers to the little-known underworlds of contemporary China
Geling Yan captivates readers once more in her breakthrough novel. This is the fantastical tale of Dan Dong, an unemployed factory worker whose life takes a series of unexpected/b>/b>
From the acclaimed author of The Lost Daughter of Happiness comes a groundbreaking novel that will introduce readers to the little-known underworlds of contemporary China
Geling Yan captivates readers once more in her breakthrough novel. This is the fantastical tale of Dan Dong, an unemployed factory worker whose life takes a series of unexpected twists after he discovers that, by posing as a journalist, he can eat exquisite gourmet meals for free at state-sponsored banquets. But the secrets he overhears at these events eventually lead Dan down a twisted, intrigue-laden path, and his subterfuge and his real identity become harder and harder to separate. When he becomes privy to a scandal that runs from the depths of society to its highest rungs, Dan must find a way to uncover the corruptionwithout revealing the dangerous truth about himself.
The New York Times
- Hachette Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.81(d)
- Age Range:
- 13 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
THE BANQUET BUG
By Geling Yan
Hyperion EastCopyright © 2006 Geling Yan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDAN DONG DOESN'T BELIEVE IN omens Omens such as an enormous red spider or a double-yolk egg, which the old folks in his home village consider ominous. Otherwise, he would decide against attending the banquet and go with his wife. Little Plum, to get expired canned food that the factory where Dan used to work is giving away. Instead, he just flings his plastic sandal and smashes the spider as it crawls by the makeshift nightstand (improvised from a washboard atop a stack of bricks, all under a crocheted cover), and be pays no attention to the extra egg yolk he eats at breakfast.
So now you know where we are; in Dan Dong's loft room. It used to be an office on top of a cannery in an industrial suburb of Beijing. It's ten o'clock in the morning, and he's taking a shower under a short rubber hose that Little Plum is holding. She stands on a chair, trying to steady the hose. The water comes in spurts and gushes from the rusty pipe that crawls along under the ceiling. That is how they shower, by diverting hot water that is the factory's runoff and merely appears clean. Three years ago, when the factory partially shut down and turned 60 percent of its employees into "reserve workers," collecting only 20 percent of their original wages, Dan came home carrying asoap dish, a comb with missing teeth, and a pair of broken plastic slippers for the public bathhouse, and he told Little Plum that he had cleaned out his locker and would never have to work the night shift again for the rest of his life. He was not worried about getting a job until he found, two months into his reserve worker status, that he and Little Plum only had fifty-five yuan in the bank. Not even enough for the two of them to have a Big Mac dinner at McDonald's.
A couple of days later, Dan saw an employment ad in a newspaper. It said that a five-star hotel needed security guards, and that candidates must be taller than 1.8 meters. As a tall, strong, good-looking man, Dan figured he had a chance. He went to the hotel in his best outfit, a polyester sports jacket atop khaki slacks, with a pair of black leather shoes to match a fake Dunhill bag he borrowed from a neighbor. As he wandered into the lobby, a woman approached him asking if he was here for the meeting. He nodded yes, and she said the meeting had already started. She ran him up the escalator, through an indoor balcony, and out to a ballroom with tables laid for a banquet. A banner hanging over the podium said "Donate Your Wealth, Plant Forests, Fight Desertification, and Take Back Our Green Fields!" The woman asked him to please sit down wherever he could find a seat, then disappeared.
He sat at a table next to the door. The banquet had already begun, and he was starved, so he swept through the dishes in front of him without knowing what they were. A man sitting next to him introduced himself as a reporter from the Beijing Evening News and asked which press outlet Dan belonged to. Wishing to be left alone to enjoy the free lunch, Dan answered he was from the Beijing Morning News. The guy said he'd never heard of it, and Dan replied that it was newly established. A Web site? Yes, yes, a Web site. After Dan was stuffed and was thinking about slipping out, the reporter asked if Dan would go with him to pick up their fee. What fee? Oh, just the two hundred yuan for their attendance, what they call "money for your troubles": submit your business card and the host will pay you two hundred yuan for the article you might write about the meeting. Dan silently gulped the air: two hundred! That's several times a reserve worker's monthly salary, plus a meal fit for a king. And all it takes is a business card!
Leaving the banquet, Dan went directly to a print shop. He picked out an expensive-looking design and had a bunch of cards made. The card said he was a reporter from some Internet news site. He had made some inquiries at the banquet and found out that many Web-based media outlets were going in and out of business every day.
Up to this morning in early May 2000, when he is taking a shower for the noon banquet that will mark a turning point in his life, Dan has made a nice living eating banquets.
Rubbing himself down with a rough washcloth, Dan asks Little Plum if she believes that he has tasted all the dishes of all of China's cuisines. Yes, she believes he has. He feels a bit unsatisfied. Every time he tries to impress her, she is too easily impressed. If asked whether he qualifies as the banquet eating master, she would answer, of course, who else does? She gives him all the wide-eyed admiration he wants, and the lack of challenge bothers him. Looking up, he sees her face red with the effort of lifting the rubber tube. She is twenty-four, small but substantial, with a head of natural curls pulled back into a ponytail, exposing her smooth, still adolescent face.
"But you are wrong this time," he says. "There was one dish I had never set chopsticks on until yesterday."
"What is it?" Little Plum asks.
"I couldn't make out what it was at the first bite. Then I looked at the menu and was shocked." He looks up at his wife through the streams of water. "Can you guess what it was made of?"
She shakes her head, smiling: "Can't guess." Every time she is confronted by a word riddle or a guessing game, she surrenders before tiring her poor little brain.
"The-dish-was-made-of-a-thousand-crab-claw-tips." Dan Dong sounds out every word. "A thousand. Just imagine how they cracked all those claws and shelled them. Imagine: all that meat was once the tiny fingertips of those poor little monsters."
He waits tot her to ask how many crabs they had to kill for that many claw tips. But she just quietly absorbs her astonishment.
"When your chopsticks pick the little fingertips, they tremble and jiggle, almost slipping off before your mouth catches them." He lets the water run through his hair, rinsing off the rich shampoo lather. "I hope next time they put the menu on the invitation. If there is ever a crab finger dish again, I will smuggle you in. Trust me, it's worth the risk."
The water pipe begins purring. Then deep burps are heard approaching from inside the pipe, from the depths of an invisible organism, and the water hose twitches. Little Plum immediately reaches up and switches the faucet shut, so the inferno of steam will not boil him. This is the reason she stands on the chair guarding the water.
"It's such weird meat, you know. It's like taking the flavor of a thousand tiny chicken legs and putting it into a single bite. It's so delicious that it's almost unbearable. There's so much flavor it actually makes you a little sick. And nothing is more tender than those fingertips. When you chew on them, it feels like ..." He tries to describe the texture of the delicate flesh, the subtle contact between the meat and his palate and tongue, the slippery sensation it gives when it passes the entrance of the throat, leaving the oral organs in such wonder. But he has no vocabulary for it. Putting together his education with hers, they can barely write a decent letter to their parents without checking a dictionary.
All of a sudden, the machines downstairs are on. The dark, hairy spiderweb around the overhead lightbulb quivers. The upper story of the building used to have twenty offices, ten on each side of the corridor. Now it houses twenty families of reserve workers. The machines kick into action at random intervals as the factory gets sporadic orders. If the inhabitants of this settlement complain about the noise, the factory manager reasons with them that they should hope it gets noisier, so the rent can drop even lower. The manager also hints that, although their life in a building-top encampment is not ideal, it costs them almost nothing; besides the cheap rent, they can steal electricity to cook with and hot water to wash with and buy meat that has failed inspection. The stolen water even takes care of any urgent need to use the toilet, which is quite an excursion from where they live. One simply squats down over the sewage opening and flushes it out with water afterward. Water is such a nice thing, separating filth from cleanliness in seconds.
A neighbor woman yells outside the plastic curtain, asking what's taking them so long and whether they shower hair by hair. Laughing, Dan Dong yells back that he has twelve toes to scour.
Little Plum helps dry him with a hand towel, her hands gentle and effective. She does everything with such a perfect economy of movement, never an unnecessary footstep or arm stroke. Back in her village, though a little girl, she earned the full wages of a grown man at farm labor. Dan apologizes to the neighbor woman, explaining that he is in a hurry to go to an important meeting. The woman says she will come back to wash her vegetables after he and his wife are done. The neighbors know that Dan has an office job somewhere, but they're not clear what it is. They envy him for wearing a necktie and polished shoes to work.
Before setting out for banquets, Dan always washes and shaves fastidiously. He has two formal shirts, one white and one blue, and he alternates between them. The day after he got his reporter's business cards printed, he borrowed a hundred yuan from neighbors and went to a pawnshop. With five yuan spent on a pair of thick-framed glasses, twenty on a microphone attached to a broken tape recorder, and seventy-five on a cheap camera that he had no intention of loading with film, he set out for the banquets as a new person. He had learned to search for information on conferences by reading newspapers. The first opportunity he found was a grand auction of newly developed technologies. The auction company had invited over a hundred press people and fed them a sixteen-course banquet after the auction. Dan was sitting with a group of "special guests." As more alcohol was consumed and the talk became increasingly indiscreet, he found that the "special guests" were people hired to pose as bidders. They had sat in the auction, raising their signs, bidding against one another just to foment a bidding frenzy.
At the end of the banquet, a huge crystal plate arrived, and Dan learned that the rough-shelled little creatures on it were called "oysters." The waiter told them the oysters had been passengers on an airplane from the seashore barely an hour before. The "special guests" were goofing around, talking about their best performance. It was the auctioning of a weight reduction technology. The initial bid had been fifty thousand yuan. They were bidding like mad and finally got it up to a million. The ultimate buyer was actually the seller himself, who had staged the riot just to get publicity for the product. Now all the media would trumpet how hot the stuff was, selling for twenty times the opening price. Entertained by their stories, Dan tried and failed many times to dislodge the gray, slippery meat dripping with an obscene juice. Finally succeeding, he took a deep breath before putting it into his mouth. He was surprised to discover that the alien-looking, vomitlike substance called "oyster" was actually quite tasty.
The following day, Dan saw the news about the great success of the auction on China Central TV's evening news. It was the lead story in all the major newspapers as well. But in his own memory, Dan only marked it as "the oyster banquet."
With a towel around his waist, Dan rushes into their loft room, leaving Little Plum mopping the floor. When she comes in, he is dressed and posing in front of a little oval-shaped mirror on the windowsill, hunching and squatting, trying to fit his entire lace into the small frame. He frowns and fusses over his hair, making some of it stand up.
"Good?" he asks, angling his face in profile.
Little Plum answers yes. She grabs a basket containing dried green peas and starts picking out grains of sand and worm-hollowed pods, resting half her butt on the edge of a desk bearing scrawled red numbers on its legs, inventory numbers of public property belonging to their state-owned factory. When they got married, the factory was changing furniture and sold the broken furniture for next to nothing. Little Plum picked up a desk with missing legs and another desk with a cracked top. She cannibalized them, transplanting the legs of the one to the other. She also scavenged two wobbly office chairs and made colorful cushions to cover up the ugly red inventory numbers on the seats. There are white crocheted covers everywhere. It is Little Plum's way of unifying and harmonizing all the mismatched furniture. Two glassless hutches stand against the wall, filled with teacups, desk calendars, notebooks, little travel alarm clocks, and other odds and ends. They are souvenir gifts from banquet hosts. Above them, hanging on the wall, is a slab of black marble shaped like a book, with a fine gold logo. The logo is solid, twenty-four-carat gold, according to a famous goldsmith whose signature is carved in the marble. It is their favorite souvenir, from a publisher who donated most of his wealth to save ancient Chinese literary works banned throughout history. Dan always jokes that if they become beggars, they can always sell the gold for food. Across from the hutches sprawls a bed covered with a crocheted bedspread and crowned with a fake-leather upholstered headboard.
Dan keeps staring at the mirror, as if he is about to wrestle with his own reflection.
"Do you wish you had been with me yesterday eating crab claw tips?" Dan asks.
"Uh-huh," she answers indistinctly.
"Such a shame they left the plate unfinished. If only I could eat for you!"
"Eat for me then." She laughs, flipping a green pea at his shoulder. He picks it up from the cement floor and flips it back at her. She arches her back, threatening to charge forward. He surrenders, his hands up and his chin turning to the clock. Time to go to work. Banquet eating is a serious, stressful job, requiring a good work ethic as well as diligence, courage, and so on and so forth.
Watching him take a checkered necktie, the only one he has ever owned, from the clothesline across the vast room, she thinks she has never seen a more handsome man, even including those soap opera stars.
He hurries toward the corner of the room and sinks into one of the swollen, moaning sofas, his knees up to his chin as he tries to tie his shoelaces. The sofas, made of matching fake leather, sit elbow to elbow by the door, like an old, awkward country couple. He has promised Little Plum and himself that he will replace the bed and sofas, their homemade wedding furniture, when he has made enough money eating banquets.
THE BANQUET IS HOSTED by a nonprofit organization that supports young bird-watchers. The hotel lobby is decorated with paintings donated by famous artists. As he walks with the crowds toward the banquet hall, Dan sees the receptionist checking the journalists' ID cards. Her eyes flick between the persons and the pictures as she explains the new policy. Two days ago, a man faked a press pass and got into the Great Hall of the People while the People's Consultative Congress was in session. He was protesting against a provincial Party leader's corruption. From now on, every reporter has to have his ID card as well as his business card in order to attend press conferences and banquets.
Dan walks away from the entrance. The name on his ID doesn't match his business card. He can make the excuse of having left his ID card home, and chances are the girl will let him in. But what if she doesn't? What if her real reason for requesting IDs is to track down people like himself? Maybe others have already noticed some strange journalists who have never published anything but who show up at every conference and eat every banquet?
Staring at an abstract painting in order to avoid eye contact, Dan finds he is one of the few people left in the lobby. Almost all the attendees are already in the banquet hall. It's decision time.
"You like this one, don't you?"
Dan turns toward the accented voice. A fat but well-proportioned man stands behind him. Dan quickly takes in his black shirt and darker black pants, a head of pitch-black hair, and a pair of bloodshot eyes inside multifold lids. He is around sixty, or older, despite his suspiciously dark hair. Dan smiles, realizing the man is referring to the huge painting in front of them. It is a jumble of colors, covering every possible interpretation, from a landscape in a storm to a herd of horses running themselves into a blur.
Excerpted from THE BANQUET BUG by Geling Yan Copyright © 2006 by Geling Yan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Geling Yan was born in Shanghai and began writing in the late 1970s as a journalist. Her first novel was published in China in 1985. Following the Tiananmen Square massacre, she left China for the United States. Since then she has written many short stories, including one that was made into the award-winning film Xiu Xiu The Sent-Down Girl. She lives in San Francisco and Africa.
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I'll be honest- I'm not sure what possesed me to take a chance on this book, but I'm so GLAD I DID! I LOVE THE WRITING! I love Dan; a very likeable fraud, and cheers to Little Plum. I'm now looking forward to whatever Geling Yan writes next!