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Book review: 'The Fat Years' by Chan Koonchung

A bout of nationwide amnesia leads to probing questions of liberty and identity in this dystopian novel of life in modern China.

January 22, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • A pedestrian carries a bag with Louis Vuitton SA logos in Beijing.
A pedestrian carries a bag with Louis Vuitton SA logos in Beijing. (Nelson Ching, Bloomberg )

The Fat Years

A Novel

Chan Koonchung, translated from the Chinese by Michael S. Duke

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 310 pp., $26.95

I've long been partial to E.M. Forster's formulation that the role of fiction — or one of them, anyway — is to suggest a "buzz of implication," a flavor of its time and place more nuanced than history allows. That's because fiction is an art of narrative, of emotion, defined by the singular movements of individuals as they navigate specific corners of the world.

"One of the great pleasures of the [novel]," Jane Smiley has written, "was something outside of the authors' plot making and character drawing and theme organizing — it was the pleasure I gained from the author's passing observations or remarks. I came to see these passing phrases as … precious artifacts of what a man — say, Walter Scott — happened to see one day while he was walking down a street in 1810; or what a woman, Elizabeth Bowen, happened to feel one evening while dancing the fox-trot in 1925; or what another man, Nikolai Gogol, happened to smell and hear by the banks of the Dnieper River one morning in 1820."

The tension is that this particularity becomes a universalizing impulse, allowing us to imagine our way into circumstances that may, on the surface, appear to have little to do with our own.

Such a dynamic resides at the heart of "The Fat Years," the first novel by Chinese writer Chan Koonchung to be translated into English. Taking place in 2013, after a second global economic crisis so severe that it "makes the shock of 2008 resemble a mere wobble," the novel posits a world in which China alone is stable — financially and socially.

"Only China has been able to recover, surging forward while the others are on the decline," reflects Lao Chen, the novel's sometime narrator and main protagonist, a Taiwanese writer living in Beijing. "… Even more importantly, there has been no social upheaval; our society is even more harmonious now."

There's a catch, though: Somehow, somewhere, the Chinese people have lost a month, the period between the economic collapse and the beginning of "China's Golden Age of Ascendancy." Is it mere forgetfulness? Is it a government conspiracy? "Today, a normal person doesn't remember," a character named Little Dong tells Lao Chen halfway through the novel. "[T]hose of us who remember are the abnormal ones."

For Chan, this is the central issue, although, in truth, the lost month is mostly a McGuffin, a hook to draw us into the narrative. More essential is his portrayal of contemporary China as a place of laughter and forgetting, in which acquisitiveness and creature comforts have insulated the population — at least, the socially mobile, urban population — from larger questions of liberty and identity.

"What is the meaning of existence?" Lao Chen's friend Little Xi asks, before quotingJean-Paul Sartre: "We must take responsibility for our own lives." Yet throughout "The Fat Years," Chan offers a vision of China as a culture in which individual responsibility has been eclipsed by an unspoken pact between the government and its citizens, in which the former offers a constrained facsimile of freedom, and the latter indulges in a fog of consumerist bliss.

"Can we really blame the common people for their historical amnesia?" Lao Chen wonders. "… We are already very free now: 90 percent, or even more, of all subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 percent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn't that enough? The vast majority of the population cannot even handle 90 percent freedom, they think it's too much. Aren't they already complaining about information overload and being entertained to death?"

On the one hand, that's the stuff of satire, a dystopian riff out of Aldous Huxley orPhilip K. Dick. At the same time, Chan is after something deeper, a consideration of the way forgetting influences polity, and in the face of overwhelming options, we lose sight of what we need. "During the Cultural Revolution and at the beginning of Reform and Opening," he writes, "there were very few books in the bookstores, and everyone knew that the true facts were being suppressed. But, today, thought Lao Chen, there is a profusion of books everywhere, so many they knock you over, but the true facts are still being suppressed. It's just that people are under the illusion that they are following their own reading preferences and freely choosing what they read."

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