[REVIEW] “An Ever-present Labyrinth: Reviewing The Book of Shanghai” by Brian Haman

{Written by Brian Haman, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Dai Congrong and Jin Li (editors), The Book of Shanghai: A City in Short Fiction, Comma Press, 2020. 150 pgs.

Translators: Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

The elderly woman obsessively collecting rotting garbage each day despite the putrefying stench; the naked man wrapped in a coat navigating a flooded Suzhou River in his steel bathtub; the novelist living for years in the attic of his publisher’s office; the locals who seize upon a library and (literally) eat the books that line its stacks—welcome to China’s city of 24 million in The Book of Shanghai.

A collection of ten stories by five female and five male Shanghai-based writers, the book is the latest instalment in Comma Press’s Reading the City Series, which, as the British publisher puts it, aims to ‘collate ten short stories that depict the social, historical or political essence of their contemporary city’. Contributions were handpicked by co-editors Jin Li and Dai Congrong, professors from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Shanghai’s Fudan University, who assembled the stories based on two fundamental criteria: the stories had to be no more than 8,000 words in length and by living authors. To their credit, the editors have included established figures such as Wang Anyi, one of China’s most important and accomplished contemporary writers, alongside emerging young talent from the post-1990s generation such as Wang Zhanhei. The result is an orchestral assemblage of short fiction in translation about a dynamic city in transition, one marked by a blend of horror and humour, imagination and the absurd.

The two strongest stories, Wang Anyi’s “Ah Fang’s Lamp” and Chen Qiufan’s “State of Trance”, bookend the collection. And they could not be more different. One of Shanghai’s great literary chroniclers, Wang has become synonymous with the city, and the plot of “Ah Fang’s Lamp”, which is little more than an older woman encountering a local fruit seller over the years, waylays Wang within one of the sprawling megacity’s lanes:

[…] this little street is bright and breezy. The doors of the houses are half-open, old people sit outside preparing vegetables as little children play beside them. Behind the quiet old people and the lively little ones are their family homes. What kind of lives go on in these homes that open on to the street? When I have time to spare, and nothing else on my mind, I start to wonder.

—Wang Anyi, “Ah Fang’s Lamp”.

Once ignited, the wick of Wang’s curiosity burns—slowly, evenly, incandescently—until its flame flickers and fades amidst the deliquescence of life’s everydayness.

Whereas Wang’s story evokes a certain pathos, Chen’s apocalyptic “State of Trance” trades in stylistic and formal bathos. A trip to the Shanghai Library to return a book leads an unnamed narrator into a dystopian irreality in which ‘symbols [words] cannot provoke any meaningful reaction’ and the dissolution of self seems imminent, even inevitable (‘Everything’s ending, cognition has collapsed, all the plans to restart the mind have failed, or maybe that’s what triggered it all, you know the story, oh, or maybe you don’t’) amidst words that incarnate the world of objects:

Step by step you approach the end, the reverberations of the world distract you. They  come from the fallen leaves, the trash cans, the bird shit on the steps, the graffiti on the electricity poles, the dazzle of the traffic lights, the irregularities of the skyline, of the cloudscape. Not only do they speak, they have expressions too, and they seem more expressive than the contortions on a human face. You can’t explain it, you’re just surrounded by the vortex of all the objects’ emotions.

—Chen Qiufan, “State of Trance”.

In a metafictional, deconstructionist gesture, Chen co-authors the piece with the help of AI programs, which were trained, as a footnote reveals, in deep learning of the author’s style. Unedited by human hands, the computer-generated texts, largely simulacra of human-generated ones, have been included verbatim and speak to the power of the technological sublime in which the human biotope continues to be eroded by the technotope of machines and their algorithms. As the AI program ‘writes’ with extraordinary, albeit accidental insight, ‘Experiencing the limitless is almost amazing’ (emphasis added).

In Wang Zhanhei’s “The Story of Ah-Ming”, about an elderly widower who collects rotting rubbish and trades in scrap to support her underemployed son, Western readers will recognise a Dickensian embrace of all that is grimy, earthy, and bodily. Take Wang’s opening lines:

The communal bins on this estate are horrendous in summer. They reek, especially around daybreak during the season’s hottest few weeks. Half-tied plastic bags of leftovers, fruit peelings and soup slops fester through the night and by morning the stench is everywhere. How to describe that smell?

—Wang Zhanhei, “The Story of Ah-Ming”.

And then there is the daily commute by public transport only a few lines later:

Imagine being on a packed bus in the morning, stewing in a fug of passenger sweat and armpit odour. Scallion-and-egg breakfast breath is in the mix, along with the occasional muffled fart expelled into the aisle. You’re feeling nauseous and groggy, practically gagging on the fumes.

—Wang Zhanhei, “The Story of Ah-Ming”.

The collection’s youngest author, Wang began writing shortly after high school, often posting her stories on her Douban blog. With a focused gaze on the lives of everyday people such as carpenters, fruit sellers, trash collectors, and security guards, her stories are the stories of contemporary China and the peripheral lives behind its recent growth.

Perhaps more so than anything else in the collection, however, is an ever-present feeling of Shanghai as a labyrinth. In Wang Anyi’s fiction, the dérive, or ‘drift’—a concept devised by the French Situationists—induces an exploration of the city’s psychogeography in which a desolate lane, cloistered courtyard, an open doorway, or a mere lamp occasions a productive loss of direction, if only momentarily. In Chen’s sci-fi Shanghai, the narrator describes ‘waiting for someone to materialise, to point to the labyrinth’s exit’. In his hallucinatory story “Suzhou River”, Cai Jun demurs:

Looking up at the two rows of buildings in a mishmash of styles, I felt like I’d walked into a giant labyrinth. This was the right metaphor. The city actually is a giant labyrinth. The outer roads are spacious and wide, but if you come closer into the centre, over here, they are denser, narrower and windier. You can never see to the end of any street. Instead, you face constant forks in the roads and dead ends, or you find yourself  going round and round in circles. They say that some people who come here never find  their way out again.

—Cai Jun, “Suzhou River”.

For Cai, ‘only the river can finally make its way out’.  And yet despite the Minotaurs of technology, poverty, or nostalgia, Shanghai’s many labyrinths—just like the textual labyrinth of The Book of Shanghai itself—offer seemingly endless possibilities for finding (and not merely losing) one’s way. The art, as Walter Benjamin observed about Paris, is in the straying.

How to cite: Haman, Brian. “An Ever-present Labyrinth: Reviewing The Book of Shanghai.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Sept. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/09/24/shanghai.


Brian Haman holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick and has studied or held research appointments in Austria, Germany, the United States, Romania, and China. In addition to his academic research, he is the Reviews & Interviews Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review as well as a Contributing Editor to Eurozine, and has written widely on contemporary literature, art, and music from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. His writings can be found in The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Japan TimesLos Angeles Review of BooksAsian Review of BooksArtAsiaPacificSixth ToneSouth China Morning PostRadii ChinaHong Kong Review of BooksNeocha, and The World of Chinese.

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