The difficulty in writing about another culture is the human tendency to exoticize, to make a distinct “other” of the people and the place, effectively screwing a monocle into the reader’s eye for some good old colonial examination.
It’s rare to find an author who can describe the differences in life circumstances of other places and peoples without putting them on display in a glass case for readers to point and look at. In his debut short story collection The Dog, Jack Livings’ ability to create completely relatable characters in what, for many of his readers, may be unrelatable daily circumstances, is an impressive literary accomplishment.
Livings is the type of writer that makes other writers writhe in jealousy for what he’s able to show with his words, and in Livings’ capable hands, these stories are essentially examinations of human nature, with the circumstances the characters find themselves in a secondary consideration.
Livings, an editor at Time Inc., spent time living in China as an undergrad student and as an English teacher, and it’s obvious his first-hand experiences here informed his writing.
His stories are all set in China, with mostly local characters facing a laundry list of internal and external problems, from a rich businessman staring down an existential crisis of soul over expected donations post-Sichuan earthquake in Donate! to a beautifully absurd tale of a company employee caught between traditional Chinese and revolutionary factions at his office who demand compliance in uniform as well as ideology in An Event at Horizon Trading Company.
The titular tale shows in slow-motion the moment a marriage falls apart, while The Pocketbook is reminiscent of the differing perspectives of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon, in which Livings deftly shows the realities of a cast of characters, including a surly foreign exchange student, a pickpocket, a school administrator and a police officer, and how their actions are based on their own narrow view of the world around them.
But the crowning piece in this collection is easily The Crystal Sarcophagus, in which a team of expert glassmakers are assembled for the impossible task of creating a final resting place for Mao in just 10 months. The men work on with quiet dignity in increasingly dangerous circumstances, and the story is both a comment and an insight to exactly how things worked, and work, in China.
One of the things we like most about Livings’ prose is his placing of natural English expressions in the mouths of his characters, essentially offering a sense of what they are saying in a context that an English-speaking reader can immediately relate to. Characters spouting transliterated Chinese phrases that sound awkward in English, or pinyin phrases in Mandarin—a common stylistic choice—can add flavor, but, if misused, often serve the story poorly.
The character becomes the awkwardness of her speech, creating space between her and the reader. Livings’ refusal to do this to his characters does them a great service, they become real in a way that they might not have had he chosen a different way to portray their speech.
The Verdict: We can’t recommend The Dog enough. It’s a solid debut from a writer to watch.
Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Jack Livings’ The Dog, is available on amazon.com
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