A further indication of this book’s relative shortcomings is that the great Chinese scholar Jonathan Spence, who provides an endorsement, says that these stories are “both darker and denser” than those in Zhu’s first book. This could be a coded way of getting round the undoubted fact that they are simply less funny.
The story Spence chooses as memorable is Mr. Hu, Are You Coming Out to Play Basketball This Afternoon? This is a very clever plot-driven tale about a man who adopts the child of a woman he once found very attractive. What finally occurs can perhaps be guessed, but the story is told without hint of censure, and is indeed something in the way of a small masterpiece.
Other items include Reeducation, an extended political satire set in the years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989, the bleak and formal The Football Fan about a youth who claims to be both gay and a small-time thief — all the six sections of which begin with the identical paragraph — and The Wharf, set in Tibet and featuring the indigenous Zangxiang breed of pigs.
This leaves only Xiao Liu, a rather convoluted but nevertheless major story. It has two thematic parts, one set in Harbin and featuring the narrator’s obsession with a woman of partly Russian ancestry, the other set in Nanjing and involving the aforesaid Xiao Liu who’s both a suspected spy on the narrator’s Fujian-dialect-speaking mother, and a computer freak and genuinely good friend of the family. This kind of paradox is quintessential Zhu. He probably thinks that being both a writer and a film director is equally paradoxical, but delights in the situation nonetheless. Should he read this less-than-rave review, he’ll probably take it with a laugh and quick aside on the essential absurdity of the non-Chinese-speaking world — not to mention the Chinese-speaking one as well.