The stories in Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection, are—to get the headline out of the way—fine, well-crafted works. Some have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Granta and The New Yorker and it’s easy to understand why: the prose is limpid, the observations acute, the situations original, the pacing near perfect. Read them.
At one extreme of the collection’s wide range is a surreal tale of people waiting for weeks in a Beijing station for a train that never comes, or when it does, doesn’t stop. They set up camp, they organize themselves, noodles are provided—an example of bureaucracy run absurdly amok vaguely reminiscent of the old song about the man forced to ride forever on the Boston “T” because he didn’t have a nickel for the exit fare. At the other, is a quiet, quotidian domestic drama of a mixed relationship in the American West stumbling from lack of commitment. Other stories deal with distinctly Chinese situations: the divergent lives of two twins—one of whom of whom becomes a dissident and ends up in jail while her brother becomes a professional gamer—to the dangers of getting trapped in trading in China’s frothy stock markets or a young woman finding a degree of liberation by working in a government hotline call center. Some, such as the village inventor who builds his own airplane, echo stories vaguely recalled from newspaper articles.
Chen’s strength is ultimately her writing, not in the exotic settings or situations.
One should not, however, mistake these for Chinese stories, despite most of them taking place there and despite the ubiquity of Chinese protagonists. Chen generally brings to mind a writer like the stylist (and stylish) Jess Row rather than Chinese writers or, more broadly, writers in Chinese like Diao Dou, Dung Kai-Cheung, Dorothy Tse, Ng Kim Chew or Ho Sok Fong. But, perhaps as a teaser, Chen includes a story about the qipao, a new fruit whose taste is almost hallucinogenic, the sort of surrealist satire that one could well believe might be in translation from a Chinese writer. She clearly can when she wants to.
Yet Chen’s strength is ultimately her writing, not in the exotic settings or situations: however well-observed, they have slightest sense of having been observed. The mix of Chinese settings and fluent, colloquial English will occasionally yield incongruities as when a character says in what would have been Chinese that something “gives me the creeps”. The stories set in the US, on the other hand, feel lived and immediate. In a story of of a relationship with asymmetric levels of commitment, a young woman who hails originally from Dalian woman says of her longtime boyfriend that his
parents drove a VW Bug cross-country after college, before becoming stockbrokers who occasionally smoked joints with their teenage kids. They were those kinds of parents.
Chen can sketch out a couple of characters and the relationship between them in just a few lines. Eric complains of a traffic-jam he endured in Yellowstone due to people watching bear cubs:
“It was ridiculous,” he says, shaking his head. “I mean, come on, people, leave them alone.”
I think to myself. I would have been one of the people photographing the bears… I look out the window and think about hibernation: how wonderful, to fall asleep and wake up to a new season.
Chen’s vignettes of the cross-cultural relationship ring painfully true with impeccable timing. Later in the story, they eat at a diner.
Eric tells me about a director at his firm who recently returned from China on a business trip. “His girlfriend wanted a vase from China, but he didn’t have time to shop,” he said. “So he just bought her one from PIer One when he got back.”
“Ha ha,” I say.
For our anniversary last year, Eric came to visit China for the first time. He charmed my parents with his bad ni haos and brought them gifts of Hershey bars, which no one had the heart to tell him local supermarkets had sold for years.
Chen doesn’t ever really wrap her stories up; this story, like the others, and like most things in life, has no real conclusion. Readers must work it out themselves.