Every once in a while, you’ll come across a piece of work—a book, a painting, maybe even a map or a piece of music—that will suddenly make sense of a cacophony around you that you didn’t even know was there. It brings into focus an unknown static, files away and categorizes thoughts of an environment undecipherable.
Jack Livings’ short story collection, The Dog, brought me a lens though which to view modern China and not only gave me access to its recent history, but also its present. The collection takes a look at characters who are always at odds with each other, and Livings does an amazing job describing the tension and dialogue between two people at ideological opposites. It holds a diversity of cultures and representations of China since the cultural revolution and brings to the imagination all of the underlying politics and existences that feel covered by language barriers and genre differences. The stories, written with the same feel and gusto of most American short stories, allowed me to access a China, though a medium that I’m comfortable and well versed in, that I just haven’t been able to see riding busses throughout Shanghai or taking day trips to mountains and lakes.
Winter’s research is thorough and honest. While at first I was a little off-put by an American author writing a collection of short stories on China, the whole thing seemed masterfully done, and didn’t have the negative, critical tone that so many American publications place on China. His stories are littered with translated Chinese sayings—I often found myself thinking that the dialogue may had been written originally in Chinese and translated, as much of it had the feeling of a Chinese conversation.
After reading the book, I find myself wanting to know more about China and it’s strong underlying politics. While the laws on censorship restrict the free discussion of political ideas of inequality and overdevelopment, it makes searching and writing about it even more interesting, like your eyes are the only resources available to you, and you scan your surroundings not only trying to understand what is said, but also what isn’t said.
Parts of the book made me excited, parts made me sad but the most consistent theme in the novel was the deviation from the norms. Whether it be with the politics within a family, or the creation of a magnificent crystal sarcophagus for Mao’s body in record time (one of my favorites), respect for and fear of the order of things took center stage.
After reading this, I felt the same way. I began to evaluate difference, to see what stood out, and what blended in. I began to wander why things happened, and where there were things that I didn’t know were happening—that I would never know where happening, and never will know. The second story in the book, “The Heir” was also one that stood out to me about Uyghur community near Beijing. I feel that this story was where Livings had the strongest political statement to make about how the ethnic minorities in China are targeted by the government and surrounding communities. It shows not only the struggle against the Han Chinese but also the struggles within the community itself, and the dreams of one day returning to Kashgar. It showed tension between an older generation who left their homeland and a younger generation who wants to go back.
But what I think Livings does the best in the stories is his ability to convey a massive amount of cultural knowledge just through the details, without having long passages of explanation. Minimal understanding of Chinese culture is required to really get into this book and truly understand the plot lines.