Nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize
"Exceptional . . . A poisoned world, with ruthless people, apparatchiks, Stakhanovites, rude, cruel, anxious chancers, and all subtly alien, quite without the American gene."-Michael Hofmann, The Times Literary Supplement (A Best Book of the Year)
Set in the shifting landscape of contemporary China, this riveting, richly imagined collection explodes the country's cultural and social fault lines, revealing a nation accustomed to bitter struggle and the stranglehold of communism as it confronts a generation rife with the promise of unforeseen prosperity.
A wealthy factory owner-once a rural peasant-donates repeatedly to earthquake relief efforts, but digs in his heels when government pressure requires him to give even more; a marginalized but powerful Uyghur gangster clashes with his homosexual grandson; and a dogged journalist is forced to resign as young writers in "pink Izod golf shirts and knockoff Italian loafers" write his stories out from under him. With spare, penetrating prose, Livings gives shape to the anonymous faces in the crowd and illuminates the tensions, ironies, and possibilities of life in modern China. As heartbreaking as it is hopeful, The Dog marks the debut of a startling and wildly imaginative new voice in fiction.
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About the Author
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By Jack Livings
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 Jack Livings
All rights reserved.
After Li Yan put the baby down, she joined her husband at the rough table. He was reading People's Daily in the brown light of a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Li Yan opened her English textbook and began to read a dialogue. It was still early but she was worn out and had trouble focusing on the words.
Pretty soon she looked up and said, "Chen Wei, do you want some tea?"
From behind the paper he said no.
"Okay. It's no trouble. I'll make you some anyway."
"Fine," he said. "Just not too many leaves."
Li Yan filled the electric kettle and turned it on. The light buzzed and the room took on a subterranean murk. Chen Wei rattled his paper at her.
"Hello there," she said. The paper rose again. She unwrapped the tea package and put leaves in a cup for herself, then sprinkled some in another cup for her husband. She thought for a moment about taking a dumpling back to the table for him, then decided against it. She'd sworn never to stuff him the way his mother had. No wonder he didn't like to eat.
It was dusk, warm out, and street noise came in through the open doorway. Occasionally a leaf or a scrap of paper would drift across the threshold. Next door, pensioners slapped their chess pieces on the board outside Old Feng's house. They could get rowdy, sometimes playing until dawn when they had enough to drink, and then Old Feng would sing opera in a warbling voice.
Old Feng's wife was head of the neighborhood committee, but no one had the courage to confront her about the noise. She was paranoid and sharp-tongued, especially when it came to defending Old Feng. No one crossed her. In a way, Li Yan admired the woman's harsh reputation. She'd seen some things in her life.
"Hope they don't wake up the baby tonight," Li Yan said.
"What am I supposed to do about it?" Chen Wei said. He adjusted his reading glasses. He kept them low on his nose and peered over the top of the lenses because his vision was fine. Li Yan made him wear them.
"Just thinking out loud," she said. She turned off the kettle. The light-bulb above Chen Wei's head flickered, burned intensely yellow for a moment, then resigned itself to a dingy glow. She carried the teacups to the table and set one in front of the newspaper.
"If you were more of a chess player, you might have some pull with them," she said.
"You know, not everything you think is worth saying out loud," he said.
"Very wise," she said.
She went back to her dialogue, sounding out the words in a whisper. The book was filled with ink drawings of Alex and Mary, a stylish young American couple. Mary always wore high heels and a tweedy skirt, and Alex a dark blazer, unless they were at the beach or an embassy ball. They bore no resemblance to Li Yan's English teacher, an American college student who sometimes touched his students on the shoulder and wore the same flannel shirt and dirty blue jeans every week. He laughed at his own jokes.
She suspected that he had never been away from home before. During free-talk hour, she and her classmates usually tried to ask him questions about his family to determine whether he was homesick. Everyone agreed that he was terribly lonely so far away from his parents.
I would like to buy a computer. I would like to buy a stereo.
She paused every couple of sentences for a sip of tea, and had fallen into a meditative rhythm when her husband grunted and threw down the paper. His teacup spiraled across the table. Li Yan caught the cup before it tumbled off the edge. A thin pool of water steamed on the table.
"Look at this," he said, stabbing at the paper with his finger.
"Read what it says," he said. "There, on page six."
She peeled the paper off the table and stared at the puddle of water.
"I'll clean it up," he said. "Just read."
"What am I looking at?"
"There, look there."
She read the block of characters he was pointing to. The Beijing municipal government had cracked down on dog racing. The paper quoted a cadre: "'We are committed to stamping out corruption,'" he said. "'As we all know, gambling spoils even the most steadfast heart. Fines will go toward cultural improvement programs.'"
"Politicians. If I had five minutes with one of those guys," Chen Wei said. He shook his fist at the wall. "It's unbelievable. Everything I do goes up in flames."
Li Yan took the cotton rag from his hand and started swabbing at the spilled tea.
"I said, everything I do—"
"I get it," she said. "You're a funny guy." Chen Wei worked for the Public Utilities Bureau. He burned bodies at the Number 7 Crematorium.
"Greedy bastards," he said.
"Would you be quiet? Everyone will hear you."
"I have to go see Zheng tomorrow. Don't expect me home."
"Don't be so dramatic. There's nothing he can do about this."
"I'll take the train after work and be back in the morning." He paused. "If I'm not robbed or killed on the way there." He drew a finger across his throat and bugged his eyes.
"That's very brave of you," she said. "Why don't you just call him from work? Life isn't a movie, you know. Sometimes it's best to stay calm."
"I don't have time to stand around all day yapping on the phone," he said. "Why don't you call him?"
"You're funny," she said. Li Yan was a tailor's apprentice. She had to ask permission just to use the bathroom.
"I'm serious. My work is time-sensitive. The dead are pesky that way," he said.
"Yeah, they're a demanding bunch," she said.
Sometimes Li Yan found Chen Wei's flair for the dramatic endearing. He didn't have much else to recommend him—he wasn't rich and he smelled of greasy smoke and he looked as plain as a flap of burlap, but he had shown up at the gates of her high school every afternoon with a flower clutched in his chemical-stained hand. He'd spotted her walking in the market nearby and he said he'd fallen in love instantly. Right there in the street he'd sung a pop ballad to her. A crowd had gathered, and some peasants watching the proceedings from a fruit stand had screamed, "Young love," over and over, as though a call to arms. At first Li Yan thought Chen Wei was crazy, and she'd told him so, and added that she hadn't appreciated being embarrassed in the middle of the street like that. It will never happen again, he'd said, his eyes so stricken she realized the depth of his intentions. Three years later, she still hadn't figured out how to tell his moods apart. He was strange, but there was nothing wrong with that. He worked for a living. That was good. And in the weeks after they'd met, he was always waiting there at the gate, peering through the iron bars like a monkey at the zoo.
Chen Wei told her wild stories about working with his cousin, Zheng, in the western provinces, tales that involved dismemberment, knives, and, too often for her to believe, bare-knuckled combat with wild animals. Later, Cousin Zheng—at the time, just a name Chen Wei waved around like a red scarf—had procured a dress for him to give her. It had a silk rose embroidered on the thigh.
Zheng was Chen Wei's first cousin and, since his parents' deaths, his closest living relative. Zheng had always been a real operator. A stint in the army hadn't reformed him at all, and now he lived near Yulin, where he was in import-export. He made money, but still lived like a peasant.
It had been Zheng's idea to purchase a racing dog, and since he lived in the countryside, he boarded the dog. Every weekend he traveled to Beijing for races. Though Li Yan had only seen the dog once—and then in its cage—she wasn't surprised that it won. It was muscled like a horse. The snout was sleek as a bullet.
The dog had cost six hundred yuan. Then, for a license, another six hundred to the government. And three hundred yearly to maintain the license. After the dog won enough to cover the debts, Zheng declared it a good investment. Li Yan wasn't so sure. Zheng moved in dangerous circles, and though she couldn't forbid Chen Wei from partnering with him, she knew something would go wrong. Zheng had lost a chunk of Chen Wei's money a few years ago in a cigarette-importing scheme—they'd met a shipper from Shenzhen who'd cooked up a plan to import American Marlboros secreted in false-bottomed cargo crates. But he needed investors up front. Chen Wei handed over his share. Two months later, Zheng told him the ship had been hit by a cyclone. "Lucky only one of us bought in," Zheng said. This was Chen Wei's lot in life. Li Yan hoped the man from Shenzhen had gone down with the ship.
There had been other catastrophes. A pyramid scheme. A plan to export artifacts from Suzhou. She'd argued with Chen Wei about the dog, but he'd told her the animal would pay for itself, and for once he'd been right. It was hard to argue with extra money.
That night she lay awake thinking about the swift dog sleeping three hundred li to the northwest. It had provided them the spoils of a wealthier household—new wool sweaters, silk long underwear, and a grass-stroke scroll depicting the character for good luck, which hung opposite their bed. Chen Wei said the scroll spoke to him. Li Yan thought a microwave would have made better sense.
A few years ago she would have attributed his choice to his romantic streak, but now she wondered if he'd purchased it out of cowardice. They could have just as easily bought a microwave, but Chen Wei worried about attracting the attention of Old Feng's wife, who was reputed to have the ear of a local cadre. They weren't doing anything illegal, but even today you had to watch out for the old guard. There was no point making people jealous.
Perhaps it was better they go back to a modest life. They'd only had the extra income for a few months, not long enough to change their habits drastically. They had enough to eat, a healthy child, a place to live. No one could ask for more than that, Li Yan told herself.
Li Yan nudged Chen Wei with her leg. He sighed deeply and rolled over. She nudged him again.
"What?" he said.
"Don't you think Zheng mistreats you?" she said.
"Not now," he moaned.
"It's keeping me up. Why does Zheng take a bigger cut?"
"It's a business deal."
"Zheng's your partner. You're entitled to an equal share."
"It's a complex arrangement."
"Are you joking with me?" she said. "I can't see your face. Are you joking around?"
Chen Wei propped himself up on one elbow and cleared his throat. Elm leaves rattled in the wind and threw ragged patterns across the wall of their room. Old Feng and his friends were still out there.
"As a husband, I would say that, as a wife, you're really hard to satisfy," Chen Wei said. He tickled her foot with his toe.
"It's not a hard question," she said.
"You're smarter than I am," Chen Wei said. "You tell me why he takes more. What difference does it make now?"
She listened to Old Feng and his friends push their chessmen around the board. They were behaving themselves tonight, voices muted but lively, like a clutch of girls passing around a secret. At one point the baby yodeled and Li Yan tensed, but it was just a cry from a dream, and Li Yan settled back into her pillow.
"You should be more confident in life," Li Yan said.
"I'm not kidding. You possess the capacity for improvement. Everybody does. But you're too content."
"I do what I can. I have what I need."
"That's not true. Look at Zheng. He is a man of action. Don't you want to act?" It had occurred to Li Yan that those like Zheng—the boors, the idiots, the drooling slobs—in short, those worst-equipped to navigate the slick world of commerce—were somehow the very people who reaped the hugest rewards. People forced to survive on ingenuity and pure will seemed to have luck on their side. She herself could never envy Zheng, but she thought her husband ought to. Zheng was, in a way, a good role model for Chen Wei, who just couldn't seem to figure out how to put his talents to good use. Even at the crematorium he was the number two guy. She wanted him to be a number one guy.
"I do my best, you know," he said.
"I know," she said.
"There's more to me than meets the eye," he said.
"Let's go to sleep," she said.
"Tired of thinking out loud?"
"Let's go to sleep."
* * *
After work the next evening, Li Yan rode her bicycle to her parents' house. It was usually Chen Wei's duty to pick up the baby after work, but he'd packed a bag that morning and left the house without saying goodbye. She'd given it some thought, and she was glad he was on the train to see Zheng. But when she arrived at her parents' compound, Chen Wei's bicycle was parked outside. She pushed open the heavy door and walked into the dirt courtyard. Chen Wei was bouncing the baby on his knee, and Li Yan's father was puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. They were sitting on sacks of concrete by the clothesline. Wet clothes were piled in a basket, abandoned by her father when Chen Wei showed up, and Li Yan began draping shirts over the line. Both men looked at her, but didn't break the stride of their conversation. Someone was playing basketball nearby. The hollow sound of the ball clanging off the rim echoed through the maze of alleys surrounding the house.
"This is foolish," her father said. He expelled a bowl of smoke and shook his head. "I know your people are from the North, but this isn't how things are done. It's bad business sense. There must be someone willing to buy the dog."
"Who wants a racing dog you can't race?" Chen Wei said.
"You're thinking too small," the old man said.
Li Yan squatted down beside them and wrung out a pair of socks. The water formed muddy blisters on the courtyard floor.
"Everyone on embassy row has a dog," she said. "Sell it to a foreigner." Her comment didn't seem to register with the two men.
"Look," her father said, "you live in the city now. Your own daughter is going to grow up here. Beijingers don't eat dog."
"Some restaurants in the Yuyuantan are serving it," Chen Wei said. "It's gaining acceptance."
"There is a great difference between acceptable behavior and civilized behavior," the old man said.
"Easy for you to say. Zheng doesn't approach problems the way you or I do."
"I know that," Li Yan's father said. "He thinks like a bandit."
"He's really got me over a barrel this time. That's the trouble with being an investor."
The old man looked to Li Yan for the first time, as if to ask how she could have brought such a weakling into the family.
"Look, man, you still have a say," her father said.
Li Yan tossed the socks back into the basket and took her daughter from Chen Wei. "Zheng's selling the dog to a restaurant?" she said.
"Not exactly," Chen Wei said.
"This should be good."
"We're going to eat it."
She stared at him.
Chen Wei shrugged. "He wants to obliterate every trace of the dog. That's what he said."
"What did you say? You're still his partner," she said. "Even bandits talk things over."
"That's uncalled-for," her father said, but Chen Wei waved it off.
"Zheng's already told the entire family there'll be a feast. You should have heard him. He was furious."
"What's he taking it out on the dog for?" she said.
"He doesn't react well to resistance. I can't tell him what to do."
"He's got a screw loose."
"It's already decided."
Li Yan studied his face for some sign that he might consider opposing Zheng, but she saw only resignation in his hooded eyes.
"He's family," Chen Wei said. "We have a long history."
"Do you want me to call him? I'll give him a piece of my mind," she said.
Her father sucked on his pipe and mumbled, "Behave like a wife," but he didn't put much force behind his words.
"No," Chen Wei said. "I'll deal with it." But she knew he wouldn't.
* * *
Early that Saturday morning, Li Yan, Chen Wei, and their daughter crowded into a hard-seat car of the #44 train to Yulin. Four of the hard-seat cars were reserved for soldiers, young men who moved with dazed absence, as though they had been sleeping in the hot sun for a long time. That left only one hard-seat car for civilians—families traveling to see relatives in the country, merchants transporting goods to provincial markets, businessmen too poor to travel in soft-seat. Bundles the size of refrigerators blocked the aisle. There were no seats for Li Yan or her husband, so they fought their way to the back of the car and squatted by the bathroom door. The car was already filling with the low haze of cigarette smoke as the train pulled out of the West Station. Tinny revolutionary songs squawked from speakers in the corners of the car.
Chen Wei laid a leaf of newsprint on the floor between them and took out the playing cards. Li Yan beat him at Catch the Pig and Struggling Upstream before they finally settled on Looking for Friends, which required less strategy. After their third game, the baby woke and cried some, but Li Yan got her back to sleep with a song. As she sang, a farmer wearing rags emerged from behind a bundle of vegetables. He crouched against the bathroom door and hummed along with her, then clapped when the song ended. Chen Wei shooed him, and the farmer drifted back into the car.
At the Xuanhua Station, they got off and found a bus going to Yulin. They had been in transit two hours already, and it was another hour before they reached Yulin, where they boarded a van traveling into the countryside. The driver's crony tried to gouge them once they were on the road, saying the baby counted as a person and needed a ticket, but the other passengers shouted him down.
Excerpted from The Dog by Jack Livings. Copyright © 2014 Jack Livings. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsTHE DOG 1
THE HEIR 25
MOUNTAIN OF SWORDS, SEA OF FIRE 57
THE POCKETBOOK 87
THE CRYSTAL SARCOPHAGUS 143
AN EVENT AT HORIZON TRADING COMPANY 193
SWITCHBACK, 1994 215
A Conversation with Jack Livings, Author of The Dog: Stories
When did you write the first of the stories collected in The Dog? Were the seeds planted when you were an undergraduate in China, or did your ideas for these stories come later?
Yes, it all goes back to my time in Beijing, but it took me a while to get around to putting anything on paper. I actively resisted writing about the place for several years after I came home. Then, the first time I tried, I bailed out pretty fast. I just couldn't handle the material. It took me another five years before I finally started working on what would become the story "The Dog." At the time, I wrote at an agonizingly slow pace, mainly because I didn't write very well. The process of revision went on and on. I could easily spend three years drafting a story, and when you have to spend that much time with a single story, you want to work with material that's interestingdifficult, even. Setting a story in China certainly was that. It took me a long time to learn how to translate thought into language with any clarity, and it was in part that lack of technical adroitness that kept me from writing about China sooner. I was afraid, given all the extra problems that come with writing as a non-native, I couldn't write well enough to do the subject matter justice. I'm not sure I'm any more confident today that I can, but I'm no longer frozen by the fear of getting something wrong. That was part of my education as a writer, too. Blunder ever forward, that's my motto.
All of the stories started with a simple premise. There was a character, and that character did something that made me say, Now, why in the world would she do that? Sometimes, by the time I was finished writing, the premise that got me started would have disappeared from the story, or it might have been reduced to a line of dialogue. For these stories, a few of those premises came from Chinese news reports, which at one time I read religiously; some came from personal experiences; some came from the weird netherworld that coughs up dreams and hallucinations.
Throughout the stories inThe Dog: Stories , we meet an aging journalist, a Uyghur gangster, an opinionated professor who's in charge of tending to American exchange students in China, and office workers who dress up in Hanfu costume. Are any of your characters based on real people you met during your time in China?
Mostly, no. Everyone I knew in China was kind, solicitousnot the sort who make for very good fiction. In general, I find people I know to be bad places to start a work of fictionI'll steal their stories, but I can't steal them, at least not wholesale. Bits and pieces, maybe. The problem is usually that if I actually know someone, I feel compelled to accurately report his personality to the world. That's a real flaw because it chokes my imagination. My characters emerge as I write and revise; they influence the direction of the story, and the story in turn presents new problems for the character, which further defines and changes the character. It's too bad that it doesn't work for me to start with a fully-formed character, because I met some great ones in Beijing. Nothing would make me happier than to pay tribute to this long-haired Chinese rocker I knew. On Friday nights a few of us used to go out to his apartment on the third ring road and get high and listen to him play along to Hendrix tapes, a cigarette smoldering in the corner of his mouth. I don't think he had a band, but he had a groupie. He had a dog named Slash. How do you not write this guy into a story? Maybe some day.
What kind of research did you do to write these stories? Was it difficult to get the setting and the details right?
I hope I got them rightor right enough. I trusted my memory for sensory details, which is why most of the stories are set in Beijing, but I was endlessly looking up dates, timetables, recipes, the brand of cigarette a glassworker might smoke in 1977, the exact type of ticket you'd get for dropping a cigarette butt in the street (something I was fined for once), that sort of thing. I'd dig pretty deep to find a fact, though if what I found didn't satisfy the requirements of the narrative, or my ear, I'd make up something. But I couldn't just make up something first. Doing the research was a way of giving myself the confidence to write as though I knew what I was talking about; gather enough facts and you get a pretty good feel for how to lie convincingly. Obviously, in fiction an authoritative voice trumps a factually accurate voice, but I did write the first few stories as though the fact police would come after me if I got a bus schedule wrong. After I'd written three or four, I loosened up a little, which I think is evident in the tone of some of the later stories. And then I got to "The Crystal Sarcophagus."
The collection's centerpiece, "The Crystal Sarcophagus," is about a harrowing assignment given to a team of glass workers upon Mao Zedong's death in the seventies: to build a flawless quartz crystal coffin in a year. At the time this was a technologically impossible task, and in the story you describe the incredible toll, and incredible amount of pressure, put on the glass workers to finish it in time. Their struggle was enormous. Sounds like the story was a struggle for you, as well.
That story was tricky for me because it's based on actual events. The elements that made the story compelling in the first place quickly gave birth to a mystery, because I couldn't find a satisfactory answer to the question of how the glass workers pulled it off. I spent a lot of time trying to learn the basics of solid state chemistry and fused quartz production methods, reading old patents for sintering furnaces, translating oral histories and scraps of news stories that mentioned the glorious triumph of the glass workers. It was like trying to write a crime procedural, where I had the body and the coffin and had to figure out how they got there. Then, after I'd been working on the story for about a year, the Shanghai municipal government declassified some documents that contradicted the oral histories I'd read. So it was back to the drawing board. This is not how I generally write fiction. Usually I worry over the characters' emotional states and their motivations, and from those motivations emerges the narrative. Here it seemed to me that the protagonist was the process of sintering silicathe science was at least the central motion of the storyand the historical record provided the narrative. It was a little like doing my taxes, putting the characters on the right lines so that when I added them up, they'd produce a slab of quartz pure to four decimal points.
As it turned out, the Shanghai contradictions freed me from the madness of trying to adhere strictly to historical events. I stopped looking for new answers and decided to work with what I had. By the time I finished, I'd strayed far enough from the historical (and scientific) record that I decided to change not only the names of the glass workers but also the factory numbers, as wellanything that might indicate this is a fully historically correct account. But some things I didn't change because there's a sub-story here, one I don't directly address in the story but that exists, nonetheless, about factual truth, the government's truth, the workers' truth, who we choose to believe, and, in a larger sense, what a "fact" is. I wish someone of Janet Malcolm's caliber would write a nonfiction account of that yearthere's a fascinating story in the tangle of competing narratives about what happened.
Was that the most challenging story to write?
The technical challenges were tough, yes, but the story I mentioned earlier, the one I abandoned because I couldn't handle the material, which became "Switchback, 1994," I fiddled with, off and on, for fourteen years. In retrospect I realize that the challenge there was emotional, though not in the sense that I bawled every time I sat down to work on it, but I expended a lot of energy trying to avoid the truth of that story. I tried to write it as a novel twice. I tried to write it as a lighthearted fantasy with a dead protagonist who meets the ghosts of Zhuangzi and the poet Li Bai. I tried every imaginable method of avoiding the heart of the matter, and when I finally forced myself to look at the body in the road, it took me three weeks to finish.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel, something I'd been sketching out while writing the stories, all the while joyfully thinking that since the novel is set in New York, my familiarity with the landscape would free me from the straightjacket I was in while writing about China. Wrong. Wrong. I've only traded in my Chinese-made straightjacket for an American one.
Who have you discovered recently?
Not too long ago I read a story collection called Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey by Dan Mueller. It absolutely floored me. Sometimes you can tell when a writer is reaching for a fictional convention to bail him or herself out of a jam, or you're reading a story that's just raw emotion, it's hurtling downhill on a bike with no brakes, which is thrilling until you get to the end and it all falls apart. There's plenty of raw emotion in Mueller's books, but he's a steady hand on the tillerwhen he deploys a convention, it's like a tennis player hitting a beautiful drop shot. What's most interesting to me, though, is the way he blurs the line between fiction and autobiographyor what appears to be autobiography. He's a powerful writer. I'm also a big fan of Greg Baxter's novel The Apartment, and his second novel, Munich Airport, which just came out in the UK. It will be out here in January. Baxter writes these subtle, wrenchingly human stories, and he's not afraid of philosophical inquiry. He's a really smart writer, though I don't mean to say that his books are hard to read; there's something subconscious, subterranean about his work, a sense of this dark river of history running beneath the streets of these modern European cities where he sets his books, which lends gravity to the proceedings that go on above ground. They're extraordinary. I'd say the same thing about Antoine Wilson's novels, though he's not quite a recent discovery. Deceptively clear writing, but back away from his novels for a minute and give some thought to what's going on within, and you can't help but wind up in a conversation, even an argument, with the book. And that's what good novels do, isn't it?