Kevin McGeary reviews a new story collection, The Book of Shanghai
In 2019, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed titled ‘Welcome to Shanghai: Capital of the Future.’ In it, the author describes his experience of visiting the city as like “walking through the looking glass into the future.” Citing the city’s “muscular” building strategy, colossal scale, citizens’ entrepreneurial energy, and (of course) China’s ancient history, much of the article would not have been out of place in The Global Times. While he says London and New York are “the world’s current leading cities,” some of his arguments as to why Shanghai is primed to overtake them are strong.
Yet fiction leaves more room for exploring the conflict between how a city sees itself and how the world sees it. At its best, literature can capture both the appealing and the abhorrent aspects of a particular time and place. As editor Jin Li mentions in his introduction to a new collection of fiction based in the city, The Book of Shanghai, unlike Beijing, Xi’an or nearby Hangzhou, Shanghai did not become a major city until after the first Opium War when the colonial powers used it as a port. From its hey-day in the 1920s, Shanghai was an important hub through which an ancient culture entered the modern world.
For this reason, a collection of stories about the place provides the daunting challenge of bringing together east and west, rich and poor, the machine and the wilderness. This anthology – which includes horror, fantasy, and social realism – does just that, while evoking multiple facets of a country that the whole world is fascinated by.
Fiction leaves more room for exploring the conflict between how a city sees itself and how the world sees it”
Of the generation of writers that came of age around the turn of the millennium, one of the best-selling and highest earning is Guo Jingming. His Tiny Times series focuses on the wealthiest people in Shanghai, particularly the young and attractive, and displays minimal mastery of story structure. Of the same generation is Wang Zhanhei, and on the evidence of her contribution to this collection, ‘The Story of Ah-Ming’, she can be described as Guo’s literary antithesis. The opening vividly sets the scene of an unglamorous apartment complex in Shanghai, particularly the sickening mixture of odors that emanate from its bins.
One of the results of its economic miracle is that China now produces more waste than any other country, and the eponymous Ah-Ming finds solace in this waste after her adult son neglects her in his quest for economic success. Ah Ming is what has come to be described in Hong Kong as a ‘cardboard granny’ – an older woman collecting recyclable refuse from public bins – who sometimes gains sympathy but is mostly ignored by passers-by. Eventually, she finds her livelihood and even derives meaning from all her rummaging: “The bins gave Ah-Ming food and they gave her shelter.”
Much of the collection gives voice to largely uncelebrated people, and portrays places which are described in the introduction as “Shanghai’s neglected nooks and crannies.” One character in ‘Transparency’, a story of suspected infidelity, laments “I don’t have a secret life – I hardly have a life.” Meanwhile ‘Ah Fang’s Lamp,’ by Wang Anyi, is a lyrical piece that culminates in an epiphany about an unremarkable apartment in a small side street.
Since its wealthiest cities (including Shanghai) are concentrated on the coasts, China has particular reason to be concerned about rising sea levels. This collision between the fragile human body and the awesome natural world is most pronounced in Cai Jun’s ‘Suzhou River’:
‘Rivers have their own way of being. They’re gentle, yet powerful … The difference between people and rivers, though, is that a person can only take one road at a time, while a surging river can rush along countless streets at the same time’.
Another memorable story is ‘The Novelist in the Attic’ by Shen Dacheng. Most seasoned readers, upon realizing that the central character of a work of fiction is a writer, will narrow their eyes. (The submission guidelines of UK publisher The Fiction Desk specifically state: “if the protagonist is a writer who’s writing a short story about the challenges of writing a short story about the challenges of being a writer, then it may not be for us.”) Shen’s story opens with the rather ominous scene-setting: “this house of culture promises no shocks, no surprises, nothing to fear.” While disavowing any notion that the writer’s life is a glamorous one, in a way that only a seasoned author can, it quietly builds up to a genuinely shocking conclusion.
When it comes to the uncertain future of our species, if Shanghai is where it is being written, then this is most pronounced in the closing piece, ‘State of Trance,’ by sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan. Chen used artificial intelligence to help write the story, telling the South China Morning Post: “Traditional literature is getting boring and is unrelated to our fast-evolving technological life. We need something fresh to stimulate people’s thoughts and feelings.”
There has long been a concern that, because China’s economic miracle coincided with its one-child policy, China may grow old before it gets rich. With its second-person narration and heady exploration of Shanghai from its establishment to its far-flung future, ‘State of Trance’ takes this question several leaps forward to when the Anthropocene consumes itself, suggesting “maybe the Earth has chosen to reboot, at the cost of shutting down some redundant apps.”
Another common theme in the collection is that of alienation, and the perishability of the relationships that are formed in fast-changing urban environments. In ‘Lost’, technology that was ostensibly invented to make life more simple causes the protagonist to fall into a bureaucratic labyrinth. With a spiral staircase as a symbol for the feeling of moving around in circles, losing a mobile phone and being unable to get online causes his life to “suddenly become a vast, empty wilderness.”
An absence of connectivity is central to the experiences of Zheng Ling, heroine of Chen Danyan’s ‘Snow.’ Wandering through a district that had “an atmosphere redolent of the faded bourgeoisie,” she judges strangers for crimes that she is equally guilty of. She looks down on the solitary, even though her own husband is never named. Eventually, a chance encounter with a young couple causes Zheng Ling to gain a sense of self-awareness. The young girl’s voice touches “a string deep inside” her. Some of the writing in this collection could have a similar impact on readers. Fittingly for the place it depicts, The Book of Shanghai is an eclectic mix of new and old, of unfathomable scale and minute detail. ∎