I know very little about China and almost nothing about its literature or literary tradition. So a book from the country seemed a natural choice for my reading challenge this year. And since Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years had recently been gaining notices, appeared to be sf masquerading as mainstream fiction, and was about, and set in, China, then it seemed the perfect book to choose.
Having read The Fat Years, I now know more about China and her recent history. I suspect I still know almost nothing about Chinese literary tradition, however, because The Fat Years is in many respects constructed like a Western novel. Except it also isn’t. More on that later.
The novel opens in 2013. Old Chen, a novelist and journalist, is a Taiwanese resident of Beijing. He is, like many middle-class Chinese, happy and contented. Suspiciously so, in fact. Further, the entire country – including the rural population – appears to be happier and more successful than they can previously remember. While the rest of the world suffers from a financial crisis, China is the happiest nation on Earth.
But not everyone is so contented. One or two people feel this happiness is artificial. It also seems to have come about after the events of February 2011, when the global economy crashed. Except there is no official record of that month. The economy crashed, and China’s “Age of Ascendancy” began – at the same time, according to the records. Old Chen finds himself dragged into a hunt for the missing month, which eventually leads him to the reason for China’s unnatural happiness. This he learns after he and some friends have kidnapped a Party leader Old Chen knows. The Party leader explains it all.
As a novel, The Fat Years is far from satisfactory. Chen meanders about, meeting friends and acquaintances, but not actually driving the plot forward. And the dénouement is one big info-dump delivered by the Party leader. According to a translator’s note, it is this last section which is of most interest to Chinese readers – chiefly because of its criticisms of Chinese society and government. Myself, I found the frequent asides and info-dumps on China’s twentieth-century history the most fascinating aspect of the book. I was even inspired to read up on some aspects on Wikipedia.
I’m glad I read The Fat Years and it is an interesting novel. But it’s also not an especially good one. It is its subject which fascinates, rather than its story or the presentation of its subject. This is not an unexpected result for a world fiction novel.