Book Review: Chasing the Chinese Dream.

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Nick Holdstock is a writer to keep an eye on. His debut novel The Casualties (2015) had counted down to the moment when the Edinburgh neighbourhood of Comely Bank was due to be destroyed by a meteorite. The novel simultaneously put Comely Bank on the map and wiped it off again. Yet readers and reviewers were required to be open-minded and finely appreciative of this delicate creation, not least because it was not wholly the ghoulish eco-apocalyptic fable that it initially resembled. The Casualties was immensely thoughtful – it wove a clever path around various yawning clichés – a great deal of its alertness was in its style – and I had judged that, on balance, “its depraved morality comes to seem like only a mildly questionable part of its aesthetic.”

I was not sure whether this novel was the peak of Holdstock’s writing or whether we are still in the foothills with an arduous trek ahead. His latest book, Chasing the Chinese Dream, does little to resolve this question. Holdstock is based in Edinburgh but he had spent many years teaching English to Chinese teenagers. You might think that China would be a bonanza for any ambitious writer, but Holdstock has an apparent policy of writing only non-fiction about the country. The process of waving goodbye to the UK and making a new life in Asia was already reflected in the apocalyptic fallout of The Casualties. Its story was narrated from the cleaner, more innocent East that had been off around the other side of the planet when the meteorite had struck.

You might assume that Holdstock doesn’t set his fiction in China because he can’t. Maybe he is unconfident swimming beneath the psychological surface of this country. The rulebook of postmodern faux pas might warn that a British man can never tell a Chinese story but only “appropriate” it. On the other hand, Chasing the Chinese Dream is seldom brisk or businesslike as an anthropological venture. The remit is to account for China’s urbanisation and the bureaucratic levers that are controlling vast movements of people. Holdstock nominates the storyteller as the most capable person to fulfil this remit. He explains that, “I’ve never been comfortable with top-down analyses of China, mainly because the country is so diverse: too much gets left out in the attempt to make some general pronouncement that ends up describing nothing recognisable.” He thus prefers “to focus on particular places and people.”

His stance is a bit bogus – how can you ever make any headway with a nation of over a billion people without resorting to generalisations? I think that most readers will go along with it, however, since it is nice to be on the ground and out in the fresh air. Holdstock will be beamed back to the space station, or the proper analytical distance, at the right moments. He is not above quoting numbers and statistics, which, in China, generally derive their entertainment value from the country’s scale. In one example, 40,000 fingers are broken or lost annually in Guangzhou’s industry. But he is otherwise shuffling suspense and surprises with deft hands in his makeshift stories.

The book begins in 2010, when Holdstock returns to China to visit some former pupils, Wenli and Xiao Long in Shaoyang, and Da Ming in Guangzhou. He is interested in the hukou registration system and how it puts a bureaucratic check upon rural aspiration. He decides to robe his study in the comfy local metaphor of the carp that have to swim up a waterfall in order to become dragons. Dragonhood proves elusive for many of his former pupils.

The young men show off their new lives and careers to their old teacher and at some point there will be a tiny mental rush when you appreciate what a good device Holdstock has chosen to delve into China. You keenly feel some deeper reality when accompanying the young man Weiping back to the Hunan countryside. He has to offer steep sums of money to every relative he meets, because this is how it is done, and so he literally has to pay to see his loved ones. The scenario is not so much bittersweet as lacing the sweetness of a homecoming with paranoia and dismay.

So we access the emotional realities of the hukuo system with a depth that a more analytical approach would not grant us. It is not an unqualified triumph. None of Holdstock’s intimates on the ground are female, presumably for cultural reasons. Still, it is always illustrative rather than frustrating whenever Holdstock cannot get below the surface. In one anecdote, he refuses a “red envelope full of money” after a business dinner and is almost beaten by the enraged donor. He is later confused when he is taken out to dine by his old pupil Da Ming: “Despite having seen how simply they usually lived, it had not occurred to me that all this expense was for my benefit.” When he accepts an envelope of banknotes from Da Ming, suffering the indignities of bribery so as not to jeopardise a friendship, you are supposed to cheer. He has finally spanned a cultural divide.

I should explain that I have failed to get below the surface of China in a far more modest way. I had visited Beijing in the winter of 2010 as a tourist, though I had a close friend as my guide to the city. She was an uber-nationalist and my crass inability to conceal my boredom with the Great Wall almost got me abandoned in the countryside. At the time, I wrote only a short article about my hotel room for Tychy, partly in a spirit of playfulness but also as a real acknowledgement that I did not know to write authoritatively about anything that I had experienced. No Chinese character has ever appeared in my fiction, due to some vague ethical apprehension about invading privacy. I have only ever had one Chinese friend and I was worried that any Chinese character would be too interpretable as her.

And so, from a position of defeat, I am interested in the problem of how to write about China. I am also alive to the more novelistic attributes of Chasing the Chinese Dream. When Holdstock pockets the banknotes, fans of modernist travel writing might happily recognise one of Graham Greene’s ruinous tropical Englishmen. At times it seems that Holdstock is not so much writing in the style of Ronald Firbank as inhabiting a Firbankian novelette: “The three of us sat in the office and drank tea that had been packed inside an orange for twenty years.” Shaoyang glitters with an Emerald City opulence. The walls of Holdstock’s hotel are “covered with velvet and mirrors,” whilst the waters of the Shao River are “still the colour of a jade milkshake.” When it comes to these details, Holdstock has a collector’s instinct, and he pockets such curios as a hilarious extract from a warped textbook that has apparently taught half of China English.

There are cinematic evocations of strange elderly Chinese people, one of whom silently holds up a tomato across a street whilst another spins two walnuts in his hands “like meditation balls.” In these moments you are grateful that Chasing the Chinese Dream isn’t a novel. What could these walnuts have ever meant?

“This sensation persisted so long it became implausible, a disquietingly strange feeling of being trapped in a town that is perpetually ending and yet cannot end.” You are often adrift on these dream journeys that it is only possible for a visiting former English teacher in China to have. Holdstock cuts a mysterious figure and his motivations are usually an enigma. Why, in 1999, did he want to come to China to teach English? For moralistic reasons or for the sheer adventure? He must be speaking Mandarin with most of the people in the book (at one point, he mentions having difficulty with a Hunanese dialect) but he never alludes to when or where he learnt this language. You have to simply accept that he comes with Mandarin, just as a dream-walker might find that they are able to speak it. He is professionally private with his colleagues and pupils, even when in his cups or ripping up the karaoke with them, and you sense their frustration when they try to quiz him about his private life. He probably cannot remember anything about it but he will surely have a normal life when he reawakens from China.

Of course, the dream atmosphere of these stories is one way of evoking the hard realities of China. There is the same bizarre incongruity mixed into the nation’s socioeconomic fabric as you find in its tea-stuffed oranges and jade-milkshake rivers. It is a consumerist society peopled by half-educated serfs, where your freedom to buy from a delirium of goods has slipped wholly out of sync with your struggle against the bureaucratic chains that tie you to your caste heritage. The teacher Mr Ma has to pay 50,000 yuan to be released from his employment; until recently, divorcees had needed the approval of their employer. Introducing the free-market mantra of “patient choice” to Chinese healthcare has produced more the weirdness of a nightmare than a dream: the public beating and killing of doctors by their exasperated patients.

Scratch the fake American veneer of this society, with its stupendous economic growth, and something unsettling and unfamiliar bleeds. Some attitudes are openly medieval; others are fusty pickled Leninism and its command economics. Universalism might be the coveted virtue in Holdstock’s book, given his striving to get under the surface of China, but it is not in the end particularly helpful to him. Explaining China actually requires a reassertion of how strange and different this nation is below the surface.

It is a somewhat nasty surprise to be reacquainted with the old hobgoblin and to find him remaining at large in this story. Mao has not after all been erased; or rather, some reality that he had once channelled continues to pulse throughout Chinese society. He lurks in the corners, in the lack of education that ensures that he still “represents fairness and justice” to ignorant people. We are starkly reminded of China’s need for democracy with the story of Shiwen, whose mother-in-law was killed by the local Communist Party secretary in a money dispute (“He did go to prison for this, but now his son is the new Party secretary”). But there is something altogether more widespread and disturbing at play. Mao’s Cultural Revolution – so-called because his economics of malnutrition were meant to be spared – had taken the outward form of a war between the young and the old and between modernity and history. There was indeed a mass destruction of cultural heritage sites.

The Cultural Revolution has got a new lease of life in today’s urbanisation. Just as youthful and wilfully uneducated cadres had once burned libraries, now boyish steel-and-concrete super-buildings are kicking apart ancient thoroughfares. Holdstock charts mainstream China’s impatience with its history and its willingness to bulldoze buildings that are hundreds of years old in pursuit of city development. Whilst the Chinese Dream “can… be said to have a ‘civilising’ element to it” because it aims to improve uneducated rural people, it is elsewhere hypocritically insensible about the value of its civilisation.

Holdstock reports that, “in Changsha even the road layout seemed different, as if an entire new city had been grafted on top of the old.” He despairs that, “a structure that had stood for several hundred years could vanish in an afternoon. In a place like Jianggao (or Shaoyang) such losses would barely be noticed, and probably quickly forgotten.” He pauses over the sight of uncountable commuters peering into their screens and he finds this sinister: “Fifteen years ago, when I first came to China, people of all ages read magazines, newspapers and books on public transport. It was shocking to think that the habits of literacy could be lost so fast.”

China’s urbanisation is henceforth a cousin to the meteorite in The Casualties. Maybe it is this, rather than, say, Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, that is the power-source for Holdstock’s novel. To make this connection leaves The Casualties feeling more elegiac, less gleeful, and certainly more explicable (I had previously questioned whether it was an “evil” book). Both the meteorite and the Chinese Dream involve a phenomenal sweeping out of the old, with specks of hazy remembering floating here and there in its wake.

In retrospect, there is a discomfort with the image of that dragon emerging from the top of the waterfall as a completely new being. The change is too pure, the splendour too immaculate. Can the old world be really reduced to the redundant scraping along of a carp?

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