Geling Yan’s quirky second novel opens with Dan Dong, an unemployed cannery worker living with his wife, Little Plum, in a squalid industrial suburb of Beijing, hurrying to the lobby of a five-star hotel where he hopes to be interviewed for a job as a security guard. Instead he is mistaken for a reporter and rushed into a ballroom filled with banquet tables. Because he is hungry, he doesn’t resist, only to discover midway through a lavish feast that his table-mates are journalists, used to being wined, dined, and paid a fee, “money for [your] troubles,” by the corporations, government agencies, and charities who hope to read favorable articles about themselves in return.
Dong may be the archetypal wide-eyed uneducated innocent, but he’s no fool. He rushes from the banquet to order business cards identifying him as a reporter—in the beginning from a phantom Internet news site, then from the Chinese Railroad Daily, and eventually as a freelance journalist, a term he finds quite miraculous in its ability to open closed doors. Now a “banquet bug,” Dong devours ever more baroque and exquisite dishes: a platter of a thousand crab-claw tips, roasted peacock, “snowballs” made from pigeon-breasts, giant snail shells stuffed with veal and rare wild mushrooms, Black Forest cake, a virility-enhancing gelatin made of bull penises, frog uteruses and seahorses (a medical banquet, of course), and finally hundreds of “pigeon tongues, stir fried or sautéed, with bright red pepper shreds and white wild chrysanthemum petals sprinkled all over the tiny organs.”
In true picaresque tradition, Dong, a middle-school dropout who writes by copying characters from a borrowed dictionary and who wants more than anything to sneak his beloved long-suffering noodle-making wife into at least one banquet, soon finds himself navigating the treacherous shoals of corporate and government corruption. The secrets he overhears at the banquet tables propel him from one surreal adventure to another, his real and false identities overlapping dangerously as he finds himself ensnared in a scandal involving high government officials, a famous writer named Ocean Chen, a full-service foot-masseuse called Little Ten, and a crooked real estate developer who designs apartments in low-cost housing units “so the working class will be under low ceilings, [and will feel] like giants shouldering the sky.” At the same time, Dong-the-pretender, outraged at the few who gorge themselves on over-the-top delicacies while millions sell their blood for rice, and despite his arrest during a crackdown on “banquet bugs,” endeavors to write an expose that will unmask the real criminals while concealing his own identity. With the help of the fast-talking, muckraking, crimson-lipped Happy Gao, a journalist on the make “who wants to share his connections, of which he has none,” Dong, like Don Quixote and Candide, perseveres.
Born in Shanghai, Yan began her career as a journalist, whose short fiction was the basis for the movie Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. One of many writers who left China in the post-Tiananmen Square diaspora, Yan is a keen observer of the cruel and the magical, and has a fine sense of the permeable line between high hilarity and Kafkan nightmare. While we revel with Yan in the absurdity of her premise and wonder at her often sensuous and eloquent prose—even though the choice of third-person narrative in the present tense distances us at times from the characters we want to love and jumps perhaps too frequently from circus to comic strip to fable—The Banquet Bug is both a delicious mistaken-identity farce and biting social critique. As Happy Gao says, in one of her many edgy monologues, “In China, everything depends on how to interpret things, and who interprets them.”
Reviewed by Abby Pollak