Strangers in the Metropolis: Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Mara Hvistendahl

By Jeffrey WasserstromJuly 7, 2014

Strangers in the Metropolis: Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Mara Hvistendahl

And the City Swallowed Them by Mara Hvistendahl

AND THE CITY SWALLOWED THEM, a foray into true crime reportage by the versatile and talented Mara Hvistendahl, a writer previously known for her reporting on subjects ranging from computer hacking to sex-selective abortions, seems at first glance to be a thoroughly contemporary text. The murder victim at its center, a young Canadian woman, works for an international modeling agency with a foot on multiple continents. And this kind of enterprise didn’t even exist until a few decades ago. Some things that happened on the night of her death were captured on CCTV cameras. One place of business that figures in the hunt for her killer is an internet café. And while the setting of the book is not China’s capital, it matters in various ways to the story that she was killed during the year of the 2008 Beijing Olympics — a multifaceted, glittering affair that’s come to be seen as marking an inflection point between old and new in the history of China’s rise and in the history of high-profile, high-tech global spectacles.

Also giving the book a decidedly contemporary feel is the location of the crime: Shanghai. The soaring skyscrapers, elevated highways, and fast trains that began to alter this metropolis in the 1990s have made it the go-to place for filmmakers — most recently Spike Jonze in Her — who want to use already extant locales to stand in for urban centers of times still to come.

Also distinctive to this moment in human history is the format of this new publication by Hvistendahl, a Minnesota-born writer who has been living in China for years and who, I should note, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a friend. Merely to describe And the City requires using terms that are just making their way into dictionaries.It is coming out in ebook form only; it will be read on the screens of devices such as Kindles, smartphones, and iPads; it’s being promoted by tweets;it’s been excerpted on a blog; and it’s tied to a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.

There is, moreover, an au courant side to the publishing entity, Deca, for which And the City is the inaugural single. Deca is a joint venture by a group of skilled authors based in different parts of the world. All have made names for themselves writing for periodicals (Hvistendahl’s main job now is contributing to Science) and crafting books that appeared in printed form (Hvistendahl’s first, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,was short-listed for a Pulitzer). All feel stymied by the limited ways to fund serious investigative journalism that requires extensive and sometimes costly research. (Hvistendahl flew from Shanghai to Canada on her own dime to follow the trail of the mystery that came to fascinate her.) And all want to write stylish long-form pieces. These common concerns led them to band together to experiment with a novel way of supporting their work, through a mixture of sales of short ebooks like this one and online fundraising. Their venture obviously only makes sense when placed against the backdrop of the latest shifts in the economics of freelancing.

Oh, and there’s one final futuristic note about Deca: its members have apparently never all been in the same place at the same time. Some have never met face to face. Presumably, they’ve hatched their plans via — to throw in some more words and phrases you’ll only find in the newest dictionaries — things like group emails, Skype calls, or Google hangouts. 

So far, so 21st century, right?

And yet … while reading Hvistendahl’s elegantly crafted work, despite all these up-to-date elements, I often found myself thinking about the past. For parts of it conjured up images associated with books from past decades or even centuries, and sometimes there were links in the story to settings, events, and social phenomena tied to the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.

For example, Hvistendahl is intrigued by the way that, in today’s Shanghai, newcomers can find themselves struggling to find their bearings. Especially if they have spent earlier parts of their lives in much smaller, close-knit communities, the immensity and illegibility of this metropolis can be a challenge to those trying to establish themselves in neighborhoods, figure out how to fit in with its fast-paced rhythms. This concern with the disorienting nature of the scale and speed of city as opposed to village or small-town life, while having novel dimensions in each era and place, is a common theme in many classic early 20th-century works of sociology and fiction in which European and American urban centers were the focus. Some passages in Hvistendahl’s text bring Georg Simmel’s The Stranger (1908) to mind. Others have a kinship to sections of novels like Sister Carrie (1900) — one of the works that journalist Leslie T. Chang surely had in mind when she wrote, in Factory Girls, that in encounters with the young women she got to know in South China in the early 21st century, she sometimes felt she was meeting real-life, present-day counterparts to the fictional heroines invented by Theodore Dreiser.

It’s also easy to imagine Hvistendahl’s evocative title being used for a Shanghai-set story or film from the period between the last century’s two world wars. That, too, was a time when the city grew rapidly and was seen by many new arrivals as a dizzyingly strange kind of place. The fact that the last word of Hvistendahl’s title is “them” rather than “her” alerts readers to there being more than one character in her true-life tale that is “swallowed” up by the metropolis. By the end we see that this term applies to what happened to not only the foreign victim of the crime at the story’s heart but also to the Chinese migrant worker accused of committing the violent act. This fits in well with the early 1900s context, too, for the people who streamed into Old Shanghai then included everyone from villagers from other parts of China to refugees from the Russian Revolution.

Hvistendahl’s new work also has features that bring to mind a recent work set during an especially dramatic period in the 19th-century rise of an American city that, for a time, was closely associated, as Shanghai is today, with skyscrapers of seemingly impossible heights. I mean Chicago, not New York, though its day as the skyscraper city par excellence would come a bit later. For the book that perhaps more than any other Hvistendahl’s evoked for me was Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (2003). And this perhaps should not be a surprise. That, too, after all, was a true crime tale set against the backdrop of a major international spectacle, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which provided a powerful vehicle for the expression of the aspirations of both a city and a nation on the rise.

Some “true crime” accounts of murders, like some mystery novels, are memorable for the dramatic twists and turns of an investigation, with first one and then another suspect seeming guilty, or for the personal qualities of a detective that gradually become clear as the story proceeds. And the City Swallowed Them is not such a work, so those looking for red herrings and eccentric private eyes or police officers may be disappointed. What Hvistendahl does so well, though, is use a tragic death as a vehicle for giving us fascinating windows onto a series of settings, located on opposite sides of the Pacific, and memorable character sketches of individuals. We go early in the tale to the isolated Canadian island where the victim grew up and then later to the “remote village,” which “abuts marshland” and is “marked by winding dirt roads framed by groves and bamboo and pine,” where the young man convicted of killing her started his life. And we get to know not only the woman who died and the man who ends up in prison, but also key members of each of their families. Without belaboring the point, she invites us to consider both of these childhood settings as equally exotic in its own way. And we come to appreciate other parallels as well, such as how woefully unprepared each of the very different young people at the story’s heart were to make sense of the metropolis that, in the book’s evocative title, “swallowed” them in the end. Hvistendahl proves a deft enough hand at classic noir set pieces: a fellow model’s discovery of a bloody body in a dark stairwell is eerie and suspenseful, a handcuffed criminal’s words to the mother of a victim suitably poignant, and so on. What will linger longest in the reader’s mind, though, will be other things. Such as the way she uses various vignettes, like those often found in the best works of travel writing, to bring specific settings and distinctive individuals vividly to life in a manner that makes them seem utterly unique — yet also just like places and people the reader has encountered in totally different parts of the world.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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