The Dog, stories by Jack Livings
Contemporary China is the setting for Jack Living’s The Dog, an arresting debut collection of short stories, with prose that is tight and compact and stories that are raw and honest.
The title story leads off the collection and immediately strikes a chord, putting the reader on notice for a book of short stories that continue to surprise and give thought. “The Dog” introduces the reader to a couple, Li Yan and Chen Wei, and Chen Wei’s cousin, Zheng, with whom he has purchased a racing dog. Li Yan reads that the Beijing municipal government is cracking down on dog racing, setting up a story about freedom and decisions, pride and marital roles.
Livings introduces us to a host of characters: a wealthy factory owner following an earthquake, a Uyghur gangster and his grandson, a young American woman studying Chinese in Beijing, an only son who is hit by a truck. These are stories about everyday people in sometimes ordinary and other times life-changing situations as they try to navigate their way through a changing China.
Livings both highlights the universality of the characters as well as their unique Chineseness. In “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”, a trio of colleagues are trying to make sense of Brother Kang, who was attempting to convert the rest of the office to the Hanfu lifestyle.
“Maybe they’ll quit their lives of crime to study for the imperial examinations,” Slick Lips said. “You look terrible. You drinking for breakfast again?”
“Up all night fighting with Mei Lin. She can’t decide between me and the Australian.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Slick Lips said. “Were you abused as a child? Kick her out!”
Livings can distill big thoughts into a single phrase that captures what it’s like to live in modern China. In “The Heir”, Livings writes:
There was no question about that: the land was worth something, even if the people weren’t.
There is an elegance in his honesty and directness. Perhaps because the writing is so tight, the reader constantly feels the tension bubbling under the surface. There are situations aplenty where Livings navigates this uneasiness and the strain created from opposing sides. He writes:
Uyghurville was unquestionably the worst place in the world, and it remained perched on the edge of oblivion by a mix of swindle and violent refusal to submit to the Chinese city surrounding it.
One thing Livings doesn’t do is write like an expatriate living in China. His characters are very much Chinese in many iterations and complications; even in “The Pocketbook”, his protagonist Claire, an American studying in China, is confronted with Chinese implications of having her wallet stolen—this is not a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed view of China or a version where everything neatly splits into East and West.