SUSAN BARKER’s The Incarnations presents modern Beijing through the anguished relations and confused sexuality of a taxi driver, and takes us beyond the glitter and high-rise developments of the Chinese capital to its worn apartment blocks, dusty cabs, and back-alley hair salons. Woven into the story are flashbacks to past “incarnations” of the driver: in a Tang brothel, with a Mongol death march across the wastes of the Gobi, amid plotting over the stained bedsheets of a Ming imperial harem, Opium War pirates, and the familiar claptrap of the Cultural Revolution. This is a graphic ride, a high-octane plot propelled by extremes, a literary highlight reel of sadistic practices awash in bodily fluids — pus, semen, spittle, sweat, and plenty of blood. What little tender emotion there is — between parent and child or gay lovers — is tortured, snuffed out, or channeled into self-destruction or insanity.
The Dog, a book of eight stories by Jack Livings, is equally intense, infused with scathing quips and rejoinders between relatives, colleagues, and street vendors, centering mostly on pariahs and losers in contemporary Beijing. Ethnic animosities, primarily between Han Chinese and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, simmer in the streets, offices, and shops throughout their communities in the capital: seen in a police station torture session, a threat of castration in a restaurant kitchen, a fantasized slitting of a customer’s throat at a barber shop. Nationalist posturing is acted out regularly, in frivolous office exchanges and during the fundraising in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Dog’s China is a culture of face-to-face vitriol and frankness, of verbal ping-pong and palpable ill will, full of mischievous laughter that is consistently at someone else’s expense.
China roils with tension in both these reads. Neither of them offers much that is pleasant or sympathetic, and there is no reason for them to do so. There are enough horrors in China’s past to sate any reader’s appetite. That said, the construction of these narratives strongly suggests the choices of an outsider looking in, of a writer imposing behavior on an alien social group. In Dog, most dialogue is delivered in more or less the same pace and tone, as though the characters are equipped with uniform wiring. The hard-boiled dialogue often does not match the otherwise spot-on scene descriptions, offering the sensation of watching a Chinese film with American voiceovers. Incarnations’ most striking feature is its historical dimension, but its historical actors — concubines, eunuchs, Mongol warriors, Red Guards — appear to come straight from central casting. Storytelling should not be expected to provide authenticity, whatever that would even mean, but we want something at least beyond the literary equivalent of Chinese fare at the Golden Wok buffet, parked between the Dairy Queen and Jiffy Lube on the edge of town.
Barker, as the dust jacket explains, spent years in Beijing, not just getting a feel for life there today, which she captures well in the parts of the book set in the present, but also researching imperial and modern China to find material to bring into The Incarnations. So it’s especially disappointing not to find any trace in her novel of, say, Chinese pioneers opening up land in Sichuan or Manchuria, White Lotus Buddhist sectarians rising up to try to turn millenarian dreams into political reality, Bohemian poets, or any number of other equally entertaining, far more revealing (and in demographic terms equally numerous) possibilities from China’s past. To call Incarnations “orientalist” would be a very tired charge. But equally tired are clichéd constructions of Eastern societies that fixate on the carnal, irrational, and predatory, as Incarnations does, while ignoring complexity and the socially or culturally unexpected.
Dog’s sixth piece, “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” is the exception, the only one of its stories clearly set in an earlier time, at the death of Mao in 1976. More sparing in dialogue and flowing with measured prose, the story follows a work unit of expert glassmakers charged with manufacturing an exquisite coffin for the deceased chairman. Caustic rejoinders are replaced with collegial tenderness, with camaraderie that seemed an impossibility in the preceding five stories. The piece presents the sacrifice and untiring ingenuity mobilized for impossible tasks in the post-1949 revolution, when ideology and politics made demands on the very laws of natural science. The story, which could stand in for the tragic follies of the entire Maoist era, does so in a way that gives the reader a sense of how these impossible missions might actually have been faced and felt by those charged with carrying them out, before the story ends with diseased workers’ lungs hocking up what must be a contender for one of the most profound loogies in literature. And Dog ends with another story of great power, “Switchback, 1994,” a vivid yet measured description of a deadly road accident in the mountains of western China that captures the actions of the policeman, the crowd, and the parents of the deceased with nuance and beautifully crafted metaphor. Totaling over a quarter of the volume’s length, these two pieces alone justify the entire volume.