book review: the fat years

On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.

The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.

The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.

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