‘The Dog’ by Jack Livings – Stories from China Today

‘The Dog’ stories by Jack Livings   (2014) – 226 pages

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This year is shaping up for me to be the Year of the Short Story Collection.  Some years are like that.  I’ve read four of the novels on the Booker-Man longlist, and none of them has soared.  There have been a couple of other novels this year that I’ve read which have been excellent, but the main action has been in short story collections.  So far this year I’ve read fine story collections by Edith Pearlman, Rose Tremain, Kelly Link, and now Jack Livings.

All of the stories in ‘The Dog’ take place in China, and all the main characters of the stories are people who are citizens of China.  Some of the reviewers have called Jack Livings ‘courageous’ for writing these stories; I would call him audacious.

Forget all your stereotypes about the Chinese people.  In these stories Livings captures individual people with empathy and sensitivity.

We here in the West tend to think that all Chinese people are similar, yet there is much diversity among its people.  Take the employees of the Horizon Trading Company.

“There were a couple of Mongols, a guy who was half Xibe, a Uyghur, a couple of Yaos, some Koreans.  For a while we even had an American, but he was lazy and got fired.”

China has a significant twelve million minority population of Uyghurs – Turkic Muslims from the western provinces.  They are treated poorly, forced to live in their own Uyghurville ghettoes, and are blamed for everything that goes wrong in China.

In these stories, a reader gets the impression that earthquakes occur quite frequently in China and are a significant problem.

“He found himself in a wild notion: he should bus the entire workforce to Sichuan to aid in the recovery effort.  But by the time they got there, the men would have been drunk for two days.  They would have beaten each other to a pulp and would get off the bus in worse shape than the quake survivors.” 

From this it appears that alcohol use is also rampant in China today.

From a productivity and economic standpoint, China has been a success story of the twenty-first century despite the recent stock market problems, and several of these stories take place in factory situations.  China has been Communist for seventy years, but today just about everything is at least partly privatized.  Perhaps the best description of China’s current government is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.  General Motors now sells more cars in China than in the United States.

 Beijing, China

Beijing, China

In one of Living’s stories, “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”, some of the employees start to dress up in traditional Hanfu feudal garb, but some of the other employees are real skeptical.  These other employees point out that it is the Japanese, China’s bitter enemies, who worship their feudal past.

“Look at it this way.  If there’s going to be a battle over who’s got more Chinese pride, I want to be on the side that destroyed feudalism and liberated the peasants, not the side that oppressed the masses.  I’m just saying, if it weren’t for the Red Guard, we wouldn’t be here today, Slick Lips said.”

Perhaps I will find a Chinese writer who will give me accurate insights into China and the Chinese people today.  In the meantime I trust Jack Livings to provide the lively inside story.

 

Grade:   A       

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds like exactly my sort of thing, Tony. I’m fascinated by China, having spent a month there in 2010, but it’s been awhile since I read any literary fiction set there (I did read a Chinese crime novel earlier in the year).

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    • Hi Kim,
      I haven’t made much of a dent in Chinese literature either but found that Jack Livings as an American who spent a lot of time in China does a good empathetic job of understanding China and its people today. If I could find a good Chinese novel that depicts modern China today, I would read that. I’m not much interested in Chinese history or folklore at this point.

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