There are not many writers who can turn a story about a man helping another man piss into a plastic green bottle into a work of biting humor and profound tragedy. Or who can make the words, "Ah, Xiao Xie," summon up the terrible waste of a life frittered away. But Zhu Wen is such a writer. He knows how to traverse the absurd and the tragic, how to bring a reader face-to-face with her own cheapness and folly, her own endless craving for the fat roll of dollars that will make all the ugliness disappear. To read Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars is to come to know a China defined not by its 4,000-year monumental history but by the present moment—in all its desperate striving and raw humanity.
As the Communist government remolds itself to suit the 1990s, our narrator, Zhu Wen, a glorious fictional projection of the author, is trying to live high despite his persistently empty pockets. Cruising for prostitutes with his father, sailing up the Yangtze to nowhere in particular, or pouring his talent into "morally retrograde" stories, Zhu Wen attempts, like all those around him, to get his due—true value for his money, whether he's bargaining for sex, accepting the bribe of another man's porridge, or weighing what ransom to pay to save his own life (the amount, grudgingly paid in the story "Wheels": 3,000 yuan and a set of quilt covers).
Despite the dawning of a new age, freedom proves ever elusive. In "Ah, Xiao Xie," Xie, a software designer and "born code monkey," is trapped working for the state power plant, a money-guzzling, Soviet-era factory doomed to obsolescence before the generators even start turning. As the best years of his life pass him by, Xiao Xie tries repeatedly to quit his job. But all his pleadings, both hilarious and tragic, are to no avail; his resignation is dismissed, ignored and ultimately rejected. Xiao Xie can spend his money how he likes but his life is not his own. As hope disintegrates, even his name betrays him. His co-workers bemoan the fact that the electrical plant is going to "turn into one big Xiao Xie." Or, describing the latest defeat of the national soccer team: "Fuck, the Chinese are completely Xiao Xie at soccer."
For all its humor, this is a book littered with tiny stones of tragedy. In "A Hospital Night," one elderly man pays exorbitant sums just to acquire companionship in Ward 16, another refuses to go home to where his "sons don't care." China's time has come but Zhu Wen looks at his country and thinks: "Better to be Father than me, me than my son, my son than my grandson. Whenever I see a baby, my heart fills with pity. Why so late, unlucky child?"
Zhu Wen's fallen world lingers in the mind, a China picking itself up from the capricious violence and the day-in, day-out betrayals of the Communist era. At the close of the century, when government, family bonds and old ideals have all been tarnished, only the hardy, dependable dollar can proclaim its worth and be believed.
Still, lust for life remains and such lust must find its outlet. People hunt for bargains and celebrate goods bought at rock-bottom prices. They compromise but they survive; the meat may be gristly and unappetizing, but still they swallow it and life goes on.
In a taxi, fleeing from misadventure, Zhu Wen gazes upon his father. "My tears began to fall," he writes. "I didn't know why. I knew full well my tears were cheap, as were my emotions. I was a cheap person in an age that burned to sell cheap, my natural habitat the clearance warehouse, pushed carelessly to one end of a shelf, happy to write for anyone who tossed me a couple of coins. I was ready and waiting: I'd even put my soul on special, on 70, 80 percent discount."
Neither the character nor the author should need to fear. From where I stand, I see only talent, pure and worthy, almost unbearable to look upon in the light.
Reviewed by Madeleine Thien