A woman working in a government call center is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, a man lives in a strange woman’s apartment until he is confronted by one of her friends, and a farmer endeavours to build an airplane. A group of people have to live on a subway platform for months because the authorities won’t let them leave, and the lives of twins diverge when one of them begins to agitate against the government.
There are a few overarching themes in this collection of stories set in China and the Chinese diaspora, namely, authoritarianism, relationships, the search for individualism, and the desire to take control over one’s own life. The oppression people experience under an authoritarian government is at the center of all the stories, it shapes their lives, and inhibits or at least lowers the chance of fulfilling any of their aspirations. The most interesting thing I found to be the relationships because many of them are either unsettling or at least strange and infused with a strong feeling of detachedness or an inability to truly connect, and it begs the question of how much this dysfunction can be attributed to the society in which they are formed.
Although the impact of the repressive system on people’s lives is looked at from a few different angles, as some stories are set in cities, and others in more rural areas, some protagonists are government workers, others farmers, and so on, I could not help but feel that I was not looking at different pieces that would ultimately form a whole, but instead at the same little part of the puzzle again and again, without coming close to grasping a bigger picture. The title I used for this review is a quote by the author describing China, and I would have expected this vastness and strangeness she emphasizes to be reflected more in her stories. I also disliked the last story in the collection about people having to live in a subway station for months. It is of course an allegory for the totalitarian state and the way its subjects react to oppression, but one that is too obvious for my liking, and lacks finesse.
I overall expected more from the book, because I thought there would be a more in-depth exploration of people’s situation in a repressive system. I still enjoyed it, and I think that it is a good collection from a talented author, but the potential was there to be more than that.