Qiang returns to his homeland of China from Silicon Valley to find Beijing undergoing a chaotic transformation in the lead up to hosting the 2008 Olympic Games. Wrecking balls are knocking down entire neighborhoods to make way for new structures more in line with the government’s vision of a modern China. The tumult inspires Qiang to shoot a documentary about the loss of affordable housing, which draws the attention of public security officials. When Qiang is suddenly arrested by local police, it falls on his friend Jake, an American journalist who admires Qiang and his work, to try to figure out how to end the detention. With few options, Jake enlists the help of those he’s not sure he can trust. Dawei, a Chinese itinerant Jake befriended years earlier, returns to Beijing in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game Jake is playing with the authorities to retrieve a memento that has suddenly become extremely valuable. Dawei becomes ensnared in a plan to force the authorities to release Qiang, and Jake must then decide who survives. Based on real events, Robert F. Delaney’s The Wounded Muse takes readers to a city and country undergoing a transformation on a scale previously unseen, where in the shadowed wreckage of forgotten communities people are pushed to psychological extremes to secure their position.
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About the Author
Robert Delaney has been covering China as a journalist for Dow Jones Newswires, Bloomberg News, and South China Morning Post since 1995. Many of the themes for The Wounded Muse, Robert’s first novel, were first developed in Route 1 to China, a collection of short stories that won Robert “First Runner Up” in the University of Toronto – Penguin Random House Creative Writing Competition in 2012.
Read an Excerpt
Qiang squints as he checks the framing on the display of a camera resting on Jake's head. Facing a condemned housing block with just a few units still inhabited, Jake is a tripod. Qiang wants the right balance of human activity and dying daylight, divided about one-third from the top of the frame by the building's roofline. Lampposts along the footpath and light fixtures around the entrance have already been harvested for scrap metal, leaving holes and gnarled wires springing out like petrified eels. Trucks roll along the street behind them, heading to or from an onramp to the Third Ring or the neighbourhoods on the other side where more five- storey walk-ups await the wrecking ball. There's no stopping anymore in this area, now a dark patch slated to rejoin the fabric of the sprawling city in a year or two when glass towers will rise from the mulch of recent history.
Several hundred metres away, another building like the one Qiang and Jake are facing is now rubble. A jackhammer sends shock waves through the air like artillery fire as workers decimate the last piece of foundation. The air is a fog of diesel fumes and concrete smashed into an ultra-fine powder.
A breeze picks up. Hot and dry from the Gobi Desert many miles to the northwest, it pushes through the city, a reminder that Beijing, despite its large and ever-growing scale, is just a small, man-made interruption in a vast, arid plain. Jake can feel desert dust mixed with minerals from the demolition site accumulate around the hairs in his nostrils and scrunches his face, which does nothing to loosen the invasive material. In the meantime, he will focus on other cravings. Perhaps a mojito tonight instead of red wine when he and Qiang head to one of the bars in the Embassy District. Summer has kicked in and it's the season for other avenues to intoxication. Besides, the only way to make red wine enjoyable in this heat is to drop an ice cube into it. That's what his Aunt Tracy, back in Kentucky, would have done. So Jake won't.
"How's it look?" he asks.
"Getting there," Qiang says quietly as he makes micro-adjustments.
Jake senses Qiang's concentration, as tangible as the camera on his head, so he focuses on the institutional blues and greens inside the still-inhabited apartments in case Qiang needs help remembering what was where. White, pastel blue and mint green had been the only colours available for interior walls until about a decade ago when wealth sprouted in the form of brighter hues that stand out in a cityscape coated in soot and desert dust. Restaurants began dressing their walls with large format photos of tropical coves, English gardens or North American autumnal landscapes. Standard issue water thermoses and washbasins churned out since the Cultural Revolution in dour maroon-tinged metal and white enamel gave way to colours inspired by new wave British pop from the 1980s.
By the time saturated colours began to re-appear in Beijing, like desert flowers after a once-in-a-generation rainstorm, the residents of the building Qiang is now documenting knew there was no point in repainting. The neighbourhood was marked for demolition. Just inside the Third Ring, the area would surely go to the most well-connected developer. It was just a matter of time before a work crew would make its way to this district to paint the character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] onto the walls. Demolish.
Wherever it appears, the character serves notice that residents have about a month to take their subsidy for an apartment somewhere beyond the Fourth or Fifth Rings. And so most of them do just that, leaving behind the street life that had teemed there for decades, if not centuries, where the business of eateries and shops housed in rough plaster and brick structures spilled onto the sidewalks where kitchen workers washed cookware and plates, peddlers sold everything from plastic combs to alarm clocks to mobile phone cases and barbers equipped with scissors, a wooden chair and a dented metal basin trimmed hair.
City planners have been doing much to make the migration more palatable. Giant machines are burrowing under the city, grinding out a dozen new subway lines to make life beyond the Fourth ring more livable. So, drawn to new residential towers with elevators, reliable heat and running water, few of the residents would have felt much fondness for the rigged and ramshackle lives they abandoned. Felt even less for neighbours, the troubled minority, who were left surrounded by darkness, satisfied enough with the work unit housing that had defined their lives.
Jake now wonders about Qiang's documentary subjects. Each unit still inhabited its own little diorama containing the story of a retired bureaucrat or state worker, each one a decision to defy authority. They remind Jake about the combination of choices, determination and luck that landed him here in Beijing, living his own life of resistance half a world away from his roots.
Qiang's lens has brought this understanding into focus. For more than a decade, Jake had watched with detachment as these communities disappeared, wondering only what gleaming structures would take their place. What new dining option would open its doors to a population that's come to expect nothing but new. Nearly twenty years after 1989, the last spasm of a very bad century, the chaos has dissolved into perfect, modern buildings. Each a promise of comfort and beauty in exchange for dreams of things less tangible.
Jake met Qiang a year earlier. A friend gave him a heads up that a newbie was relocating to Beijing and asked if Jake would be kind enough to introduce Qiang to some friends, maybe a place where he'd get a chance to talk to some reporters? Jake obliged and took him, literally and figuratively, to the centre of the city's expat social scene, the semi-annual soiree at the penthouse apartment of a Swiss banker.
"This is history," Qiang said to Jake as they looked down from the terrace at a pile of rubble that would eventually become the third stage of the China World Center. "Usually, you need a load of academics to make the calls on what constitutes a new era but anyone with eyes knows this is a new world."
The first two China World Towers, flanking the five-star China World Hotel, had marked the easternmost extent of central Beijing. Developers have since moved further out, jumping the Third Ring and pushing more residents out beyond the Fourth.
"Someone needs to document this with the right lens," Qiang said. "To the Western press, this is like Mordor. To the state press, this is the rebirth of civilization."
Qiang's conviction moved Jake. Others might have seen it as righteous self-possession but Jake took Qiang's declaration as a sort of grounding. He saw someone so embedded in a cause that everything else about a wealthy banker's party on a Saturday night, atop a building in the centre of the most important city in the world, meant nothing. The quips about a moronic U.S. president, the ironic phrases emblazoned on t-shirts, "The Revolution's Children Now Run the Show", paired with fine linen blazers and converse sneakers, the puffs of hash and Blondie's Heart of Glass thumping through the sound system all seemed trite.
Qiang had made sense of the economic growth and industrial output numbers, always orders of magnitude ahead of anywhere else in the world, that Jake had been writing about every day. He apparently didn't have eyes or, maybe, as he has told himself since he met Qiang, he's just been in China too long to grasp the enormity of the story he was covering. Jake hadn't been back to the U.S. since he left more than a decade ago.
With his lens on these few, soon to be extinguished, lonely rectangles of florescent light in front of them, Qiang is now zooming in on the details of this historical shift, this upheaval, in a way that Jake never has.
Jake has asked Qiang a few times whether he's concerned about the authorities, whether he's stepping over a line with this documentary. Qiang always brushes away the warnings as though Jake was suggesting sunscreen on an overcast day.
Still, he's taken some precautions to make them less visible. He has left everything but the camera at home so they wouldn't look like a film crew. And Jake is happy to serve as the tripod. He's getting a drink out of this but that's not why he agreed to come along. He'll be getting time with Qiang, the first person Jake has met in this city who's not chasing money.
Qiang abandoned that pursuit a few months earlier when he chose to ditch his corner office in Silicon Valley. He arrived in Beijing with nothing but a computer loaded with editing software, the camera that's on Jake's head and the tripod that's lying in the foyer of Qiang's sparsely furnished apartment just outside the East Third Ring.
"Can you hold the stance a bit more steadily?" Qiang asks.
Jake spreads his feet slightly and moves one foot behind to give him a wider base. Qiang then steadies the camera further by resting his elbows on Jake's shoulders while he pans across the length of the building. Enlisted in an effort that blends art and politics, Jake's shoulders now support a different kind of utility. Jake can, for a few moments, take pride in them without feeling vain.
His transformation from a clueless pre-teen in a coal mining town to foreign correspondent in China started with these assets when his Aunt Tracy told him how "broad shoulders make the man." She made the comment at a backyard barbecue, an event arranged by Tracy because some cousin or niece finished grade school. Slurring her words and gesturing with a cigarette in one hand, Aunt Tracy told Jake his shoulders were sturdy enough to get him into any life he wanted. In the other hand, she gripped a plastic tumbler full of red wine on ice.
With a head of permed red hair dyed even redder, Tracy stood out. As usual, everyone else was drinking beer or bourbon, or both and she would have made sangria if she knew what that was. Before she was too drunk to make any sense, Tracy took Jake aside and told him to "get out of this white trash heap and don't let anyone put you down."
As an eleven-year-old, Jake didn't understand what his aunt meant about white trash or shoulders. It wasn't until a few years later when he saw the James Bond film A View to a Kill with the blonde and buff Dolph Lundgren as a KGB henchman and the martini sipping Roger Moore that Jake got the idea to accentuate his best asset. Shoulder presses, bench presses, squats and crunches a couple times a week built up a body that stopped the tough kids from making fun of his pronounced buck-teeth. His shoulders gave Jake the courage he needed to leave Kentucky just a week after graduating high school. He left his mother and her live-in boyfriend a note: "I'm off and I'll get in touch when I'm settled."
Aunt Tracy, the only relative he ever felt close to, had passed away from lung cancer just a few months earlier. There was no one else he cared for in Magnet Hill, Kentucky.
"I think I got the shot," Qiang says as he takes his elbows off Jake's shoulders and begins examining the footage through the camera's display.
"Want to get some footage of the others?" Jake asks.
"Nah, the light behind the building is gone," Qiang says. "The shot will be too flat." He reviews more of the footage. "And you must be very thirsty," he adds, looking up with a satisfied expression. "Ten o'clock on a Thursday night. I know you want to get an early start on the weekend."
Jake squints his eyes and smiles. "You know me so well."
In fact, Jake wouldn't mind spending another hour roaming the condemned neighbourhood looking for artifacts.CHAPTER 2
YONGFU VILLAGE, HEILONGJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA
Dawei watched snowflakes the size of chestnuts fall outside the classroom window. Electricity to the two-room school would surely cut out soon and all of the students would be sent home. The wiring was shoddy, his father had told him when the building was constructed a few years earlier, shoddy like everything in Yongfu.
Snowstorms used to bring joy. Dawei once loved to clear the front of his house with the shovel his father fashioned by lashing half a cooking oil canister to a tree branch with bolts and thick twine. He would watch the blanket of snow thicken and drag the old shovel out every half hour. It was a contest, Dawei against the snow.
But the snow, on this late winter day when the lengthening days had Dawei hoping for the warmth of spring, made him brood. A clearer understanding about the difference between work and play emerged as suddenly as the hair that had recently sprouted in his armpits and around his groin. Clearing snow was a task, not a game. And this storm brought more than a new set of responsibilities. It drew a dividing line between childhood and adulthood.
The snow had been accumulating for hours and the students became more restless as they waited for the dismissal they knew would come at any moment. And then white flakes began falling on Dawei's desk.
When they hit, Dawei and his desk mate looked at each other. Falling with the weight of pebbles, the flakes were small and solid. Like sleet, but dry. This wasn't snow. A loud creak then interrupted the teacher's lesson as everyone in the classroom looked up to watch a crack tear across the white ceiling like footage of a lightning bolt in negative. The students sat, transfixed, trying to make sense of what was happening until the sound of rending metal joints – alternating screeches and snaps – prompted them to crouch and grab the sides of their desks.
Dawei jumped up from his bench and ran to the other side of the room just as the lights died. Amid yelps and screams, broad chunks of plaster from each side of the crack fell on a few of his classmates, exposing a matrix of struts and corrugated metal all bending inward.
Students began tripping over debris and running into each other as they scrambled to the sides of the room. With the lights cut and some of the windows now covered by panels dangling from the corners of the ceiling, it was difficult to separate the sounds of structural collapse from the abrupt movement of desks as students tried to make their way to the exit.
Dawei struggled to get his bearings. Xiao Bei, a classmate one year younger than Dawei, lay dazed and bleeding after being knocked off her bench by a chunk of plaster. She looked at Dawei as if to ask for guidance. Her expression kept him from fleeing even as the metal struts began straining the wall behind him, shattering banks of casement windows.
Dawei thought of the heroes in the stories they'd listened to in class: The Outlaws of the Marsh and The Journey of Meng. When someone needs help, the only honourable response is to ignore the danger. This is what it means to be an adult and a hero. And Xiao Bei was one of the few students who had never taunted Dawei about his stutter. They'd always played together during recess, often building simple structures with stones and twigs in the schoolyard while the other boys played soccer with the school's one ratty ball and the girls played tag.
"Dawei and Xiao Bei are getting married!" the other kids would sometimes yell. "Look, they're building their house!"
Xiao Bei would sometimes blush, but she had never stopped playing with Dawei.
As debris fell around him, Dawei understood that stories of courage and character aren't merely a means to fill class time. They're meant to help children learn to recognize when a door to adulthood opens. And Dawei wanted to jump through the door between him and his injured friend.
The teacher was trying to help two students on the other side of the room by forcing open the window behind them. She lifted them, one by one, onto the windowsill, allowing them to jump out while screaming at the students already outside to move away from the building.
As the other students ran towards the door, Dawei crouched down behind Xiao Bei, putting his arms underneath her back and wrapping them up through her armpits. He began dragging her backwards as more plaster fell and the wall next to him cracked from the pull of the metal struts now folding under the weight of the snow. Just a few feet from the door, part of the wall fell in on Dawei, hitting him on the back of his head and his shoulder.
A moment later, Dawei felt the strong grip of an adult, probably his teacher, pull him by the ankle. Then, the shock of snow on his cheek and in the background, more yelps and screams mixed with loud cracks and shattering sounds. He was hoisted up by someone who threw Dawei's arm around the back of his neck and grabbed his wrist as it flopped onto the other side. The man hustled Dawei through the heavy snow towards the local clinic. The cold air and the jostling began to revive Dawei. Once his wits reconnected, he planted his feet firmly on the ground and stopped. Panting and bent over with his hands on his knees, Dawei asked about Xiao Bei.
"Who?" the man asked.
"Xiao Bei. I ... almost had her ... out of the building," Dawei said between breaths.
"I don't know. They're trying to move the debris. If you're okay, I'm going back to help them. You should get yourself to the clinic."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wounded Muse"
Copyright © 2018 Robert F. Delaney.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A really good, readable, compelling book about several complicated, deep subjects under the surface. Well worth the time.
My best friend gave me a copy of this book a few days ago and I literally spent the entire weekend glued to it. Suspenseful, insightful and believable. I particularly like the character Dawei. Due to his circumstances, he became a drifter. Many times while reading it, I wanted to hug him.The other characters are well developed. This is a great book. Can't believe it is the author's first novel. I hope he will write more.