A debut collection from an extraordinary new talent that vividly gives voice to the men and women of modern China and its diaspora
Gripping and compassionate, Land of Big Numbers depicts the diverse and legion Chinese people, their history, their government, and how all of that has tumbled—messily, violently, but still beautifully—into the present.
Cutting between clear-eyed realism and tongue-in-cheek magical realism, Chen’s stories coalesce into a portrait of a people striving for openings where mobility is limited. Twins take radically different paths: one becomes a professional gamer, the other a political activist. A woman moves to the city to work at a government call center and is followed by her violent ex-boyfriend. A man is swept into the high-risk, high-reward temptations of China’s volatile stock exchange. And a group of people sit, trapped for no reason, on a subway platform for months, waiting for official permission to leave.
With acute social insight, Te-Ping Chen layers years of experience reporting on the ground in China with incantatory prose in this taut, surprising debut, proving herself both a remarkable cultural critic and an astonishingly accomplished new literary voice.
Lulu -- Hotline girl -- New fruit -- Field notes on a marriage -- Flying machine -- On the street where you live -- Shanghai murmur -- Land of big numbers -- Beautiful country -- Gubeikou spirit
Te-Ping Chen is a fiction writer & journalist whose debut collection of short stories, Land of Big Numbers, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 2, 2021.
Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Granta and Tin House. She is a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Philadelphia who was previously based in Beijing and Hong Kong. She has reported on rice cookers and wrongful convictions, gotten hung up on by Edward Snowden and eaten more robot-cooked noodles than she can count.
Te-Ping Chen writes an outstanding and multilayered collection of short stories that provide insights into the most populous nation on earth, modern China, its history, culture, social and political aspects. Beautifully written, painting with broad brushstrokes, she gives us a picture of flawed individuals in the richly diverse, wide ranging tales that show the contemporary Chinese realities, the personal and the political, and deploys elements of magical realism. We have a created strange and fantastical fruit, experienced differently but positively by people, until this changes. We have twins, a brother and sister, taking different paths and approaches to their lives, with the brother getting concerned about her political activism and her posts on social media. A woman leaves her home, escaping her boyfriend, to chase her dreams, only to end up in a call centre, with the boyfriend tracking her down.
The Land of Big Numbers illustrates the complex relationship between people, their dreams, hopes and desires, with a controlling government. The stand out story for me was the madness represented by the offbeat Gubeiko Spirit, where a group of people are trapped in a station, thanks to government regulations. The author captures the daily lives, the melodrama, the resilience, the limitations and progress experienced by those who live in China, underlining the universality of being human and all that connects us. There is the desperation, pain, disappointment, and the battle to survive, and the historical hardships and poverty. This is an illuminating and thought provoking collection of short stories that I loved, the only reason it gets 4 stars is that some of the stories left me wanting more. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for an ARC.
What would I do without Goodreads friends, eh? A GR friend recommended this and onto my TBR list it went and then to the library I went and to pick up the book and then to read it and to get gobsmacked by how good these stories were.
Maybe because I am so unfamiliar with China…I don’t know. The author lived in China from 2006 to 2018…was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal from 2012-to 2018 (she was already fluent in Chinese growing up in California because she went to Saturday school as a child to learn the language) (see her short bio below).
What was interesting to me was the joy of experiencing these stories cold…I knew a GR friend had given it 5 stars but other than that knew nothing about the stories. So, the first one was 5 stars to me, then the second one 5 stars, then the third one 5 stars…this just does not happen to me when I read a collection of short stories…for them to be automatic 5 stars. Anyway, what a pleasure!!!! 😊😊😊
A story that resonated with me in particular was “New Fruit”. It was about this unique fruit that people could buy at fruit stalls and when people ate it, it conjured up very pleasant memories. And so of course the fruit was wildly popular r and in demand. But then the next year the fruit conjured up very sad and disturbing memories. Things that people has wanted to forget. And now they were forefront and center in their lives. For some reason that story just hit home with me. How clever a story too.
Bio on the Te-Ping Chen from PEN America: Te-Ping Chen is the author of the story collection Land of Big Numbers. Her fiction has been published, or is forthcoming from, The New Yorker, Granta, Guernica, Tin House, and BOMB magazine. She is a Wall Street Journal correspondent based in Philadelphia, where she writes about workplace issues. From 2014 to 2018, she was a Beijing-based correspondent for the paper, covering politics, society, and human rights. Before that, she was a Hong Kong correspondent, covering the city’s politics and pro-democracy movement. Prior to joining the Journal in 2012, she spent a year in China interviewing migrant workers as a Fulbright Fellow and worked as a China reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C.
One of the most skillful short story collections I have read in a while! In The Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen writes about the lives and relationships of people living in both modern-day China as well as Chinese people living in the United States. She weaves narratives about people’s hopes and dreams, both for their own lives and their relationships with others, amidst larger systems of economic inequity and state control. I most loved the first short story “Lulu,” about two twins who take widely diverging paths, our narrator pursuing a career as a professional gamer whereas his sister becomes a political dissident. My second favorite short story in the collection was “Hotline Girl,” about a woman who works at a government call center and is followed by her violent ex-boyfriend. I felt so connected to the characters in these stories and enjoyed how Chen elicited a lot of emotions from me (e.g., poignancy at how the twins’ relationship develops over time in “Lulu,” nostalgic hope about our protagonist’s safety in “Hotline Girl”) in subtle and unassuming prose. These stories feel grounded both in characters with unique life experiences and personalities as well as in the consequences of broadening globalization both in China and abroad.
Other stories I liked included “Field Notes on a Marriage,” “Land of Big Numbers,” and “Gubeikou Spirit.” While I wanted a bit more either voice-wise or plot-wise from the remaining stories, I think Te-Ping Chen is a talented writer and interwove some magical realist elements in some of these stories, which I usually find off-putting or distracting yet worked in this collection.
Chen examines modern China and its recent emigrants with both a realistic and surrealistic lense - sometimes at the same time. I loved the way this excellent collection shifted my mind and opened my eyes.
These are excellent stories. Most are set in China; a few in the U.S. of A. A time or two I might’ve been flummoxed by an ending, but with just a little reflection, that ending came to seem perfect. For me, that’s one of the marks of a very good short story.
One story in particular, about a man working the stock market, separate from his low-paying daily job, seems to be of this immediate moment, as if it were just written yesterday. My favorite story might be the last one, humorous in some details but frightening in its theme. Though it’s set in a Beijing train station, how people adapt (or don’t) to arbitrary rules makes it universal.
This was the January book for The Nervous Breakdown Book Club and I’m happy it came my way.
With the exception of the first two stories in this collection, 'Lulu' and 'Hotline Girl', I wasn't all that taken by Land of Big Numbers. What I most appreciated is Te-Ping Chen's ability to vividly render contemporary China. The stories in this collection will certainly give readers insight into Chinese and modern work culture, the everyday realities of young Chinese men and women, as well as shed light on class and generational divides. In the first story, 'Lulu', a young man who is into gaming becomes increasingly concerned over his sister's involvement in protests and activities criticizing the Chinese government. In the following story 'Hotline Girl' (the title reminds me of a certain song) a young woman who works at a government call center is contacted by her abusive ex. While these first two stories felt complete and well-realized the remaining 8 easily blur together. One is about an addictive fruit, another one is about an inventor whose creations more often than not flop, we have a few exploring marriages or romantic relationships but in a way that never brought me close to the characters. I wasn't drawn in by them or, to be perfectly honest, by the author's writing style. We have some strained metaphors ("She felt the years deep beneath her skin, as though Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks", the layers of a croissant are compared to the "underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling"). Many of the characters were flat, their conversations uninteresting, their motives unconvincing. Still, I recognize that many other readers will find this collection to be more satisfying than I did. I guess I have almost 0 interest in stories about stock markets or thinly rendered characters. I hope others will be able to appreciate these stories more than I was able to.
ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Isn’t this cover stunning? I loved the stories within these pages as well. There is so much beauty here along with touches of magical realism in these unconnected short stories. I learned more about life in everyday China, culture, Chinese immigration, hardship, injustice, and government. The overall tone is somewhat melancholy, and I absolutely adored the characters.
Land of Big Numbers made me think and feel. In every other sentence, I want to go back to Te-Ping Chen’s writing. She’s immensely talented, and while I definitely had my favorite stories, I enjoyed and learned something from all of them. We will definitely be hearing more from this author. She honored her characters with bold storytelling.
English: Land of Big Numbers I greatly enjoyed Te-Ping Chen's debut collection of ten short stories that depict contemporary China and Chinese emigrants in the West (with a few ventures into magical realism). Authoritarianism and the intergenerational trauma attached to it, the wish to achieve a higher standard of living, the strife for freedom and justice - Chen often contrasts young people who hold on to ideals with older ones who have been disillusioned, she shows different scenarios in which her protagonists endure continued emotional strain and ponders the effects of dreams and desires that turn into a burden. What is a chimera, what is worth fighting for, and how?
I particularly enjoyed the intricate descriptions of complex psychological dilemmas, e.g. in the story of activist Lulu and her twin brother, a pro-gamer, the story of a lonely woman from the provinces who works in a flower shop in Shanghai, or the tale about a young woman who marries an enigmatic Chinese immigrant with a terrible secret. While the English original of the book is titled after a story about a young man in provincial China who employs illegal methods to speculate at the stock market ("Land of Big Numbers"), the German translation is titled after another one that deals with a Chinese nurse who is trapped in an unhappy relationship in Tucson ("Beautful Country", translated as "Isn't it beautiful here"). . A very worthwhile read, full of well-crafted details. I'd love to read a novel by this author. You can learn more about the collection in our latest podcast episode (in German).
With her debut short story collection Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen brings us an insightful and thought-provoking portrayal of modern day China. Over the course of 10 diverse and layered stories, Chen provides keen insight into the cultural, political, economic, and social realities of what life is like for citizens in contemporary China and also beyond that, extending to the Chinese diaspora in several instances. A few of the stories were direct in depicting the plight of Chinese citizens’ current reality, while others were more fantastical, employing elements of magical realism to get its point across — all of the stories were well-written though and compelling to read.
While I enjoyed the entire collection overall, a few of the stories were especially engaging, to the point that I couldn’t help feeling disappointed when they ended abruptly, without closure. I prefer fictional stories that are complete — with a beginning, middle, and end — which is why, in general, I’m not particularly keen on short story collections. I don’t like the feeling of being left hanging, though unfortunately, most short story collections do exactly that — this collection, of course, was no exception, though I will say that the quality of the stories does make up for it to some degree.
One of the things I really appreciate about this collection is that it gives readers a glimpse into what life is like for people living in contemporary China. This is significant given that many of the stories nowadays are about the Chinese immigrant experience in the U.S., which I’m happy to see of course, but I also feel that it’s hard to truly understand that experience without having some familiarity with the background history and culture — books like this one are important and necessary contributions to this understanding.
This is a collection that I definitely recommend. At less than 250 pages, the book is brief enough that it can be read in one sitting, yet each story is so deeply nuanced that some amount of reflection is needed before moving on. As I mentioned earlier, while I did enjoy the entire collection, a few of the stories in particular stood out as favorites. Among them were:
“Lulu” - about brother/sister twins who grow up in the same household but end up taking radically different paths in life — one becomes a professional gamer while the other becomes a political activist. I felt this was the most emotionally nuanced story in the collection.
“Hotline Girl” - about a young woman who moves from the village to the city to work at a government call center and also to escape her violent ex-boyfriend, who eventually tracks her down.
“New Fruit” - about the effects of the qiguo on a village — a ‘peculiar fruit’ that evokes different, mostly positive, responses from those who eat it, until the day that it suddenly doesn’t. This was an interesting story, one that demonstrated people’s propensity toward fickleness but also their capacity for resilience.
“Field Notes on a Marriage” - about an interracial couple where the wife truly begins to understand her husband upon traveling to his home country after his death.
“Shanghai Murmur” - about the divide between the rich and poor, manifested in a young woman’s obsession with an object belonging to one of her customers.
“Gubeikou Spirit” - about a group of people trapped on a subway platform for months, unable to leave until the government gives them permission to do so. This was by far the strangest story of the entire collection, but also the most fascinating and the one that stood out the most.
Received paper ARC from publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Mariner Books).
This collection was one of my most anticipated reads – it’s a short story collection and it focuses on modern day China, and what predominantly caught my interest with this from the blurb: “depicts the diverse and legion Chinese people, their history, their government, and how all of that has tumbled—messily, violently, but still beautifully—into the present.“. Sadly, I did not find that the book delivered on that promise, nor did I feel like it delivered much of anything for me personally.
The collection opens with Lulu, and it very much sets the tone of the collection, not only in me not disliking it, but more generally in what the collection as a whole is trying to do. Lulu read like a 2000s YA dystopian to me, and not a particularly good one at that. I found that this story, like the rest of them, tried really hard to make some sort of political statement, or to critically explore the political and social system of China. However, it did so very superficially, without any nuance and it glaringly felt like it was written by an outsider. I know this will probably invite some discourse in my comments, but I have to note that there is something particularly Western in the portrayal of China in here. And what I mean about that is that it did not feel authentic at all. I feel like something that is incredibly complex was diluted. I think there’s a lot to be criticized there, I just do not think that this book does so in a very successful way. I find cultural and political criticism very valuable and important, but for me personally this just failed to give any sort of complexity and nuance to the topics it tackles.
My second big grievance with this one is that these stories did not know what they were. On one hand, the author tries to deliver a sort of bigger societal critique, which I have already discussed, but then on the other, it tries to deliver on character relationships in particular and I think it gets lost between the two and ends up not delivering on either end. The stories were really unfocused and all over the place in their execution. The endings were particularly frustrating for me, because I kept waiting for a story to do what it clearly was trying to do, but then the stories would just end. I do not mind an open or messy ending at all, but I really mind when I cannot see what the point of a narrative is. I just do not see the point of a lot of these stories or what they were trying to say or do.
I will say that the stories that had some magical realism component were in my opinion more successful. My favorite story in the collection was New Fruit, which is about this miraculous fruit that evokes very positive feelings in people, only for it to hit a bad season and start having an opposite effect. But even with that story I felt like there was so much potential that was sadly never used to its fullest.
Looking at the early reviews, I think I will definitely be in the minority with my feelings on this, so I am looking forward to seeing what people think and I am still not sure whether or not to recommend this one. For me personally, it really did not work, but I do see the potential it has, so I would not be so quick to dismiss it.
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an eARC through Netgalley.
Eine gute Sammlung von Kurzgeschichten, die die Zerrissenheit der jungen Chinesen widerspiegeln. Die Protagonisten leben entweder in China oder in den USA und erzählen von ihren Leben, die z.T. gar nicht mehr so sehr unterscheiden wie die der westlichen Leute. Allerdings sind die alltäglichen Probleme der jungen Chinesen verflochten mit Familie, Politik und Wirtschaft, wo man dann doch hier und dort die Unterdrückung, Korruption und Revolutionsgeist sehen kann. Ich fand es toll wie unterschwellig die chinesische Zeitgeschichte hineingeflossen ist, ohne dass die Geschichte zu sehr ins politische gedriftet sind, aber doch genug, dass man sich Gedanken gemacht hat.
Die Geschichten lesen sich leicht und man kann sehr gut nachempfinden wie die Figuren auf der Schwelle zwischen Vergangenheit und Moderne stehen. Insgesamt war es ein gut abgerundetes Buch mit einer guten Auswahl an Geschichten. Für mein Geschmack hätte die Autorin noch mehr mit der Sprache und Doppeldeutigkeiten spielen können. Die letzte Geschichte "Gubeikou gibt nicht auf" ist mein Favorit und sie war ein schöner Abschluss zu dieser Sammlung.
** Dieses Buch wurde mir über NetGalley als E-Book zur Verfügung gestellt **
3 and 1/3 stars. A first short-story collection set mostly in contemporary China's third- and fourth-tier cities, and an attempt to translatable these lives to make them legible for an Anglophone readership. For all of the vividness with which she renders her protagonists' emotional lives, Chen tends to collapse the distance between them and her readers, but rather than producing empathy, it has a numbing and distancing effect. Despite the layers of convincing journalistic detail about digital surveillance, state repression, online day-trading, and endless shopping malls, many of these stories just didn't ring true for me.
Two magical realist stories, "New Fruit" and "Gubeikou Spirit," stand out from the pack, and were the highlights of the collection for me (a third, "Flying Machine," is more droll and less successful). The remaining stories are in a social-realist mode. And aside from "Lulu," the excellent first story about the diverging lives of twins, the rest of these pieces blur into each other: they follow the same algorithm of a competently constructed New Yorker short story. Each concludes on the same note: an artfully inconclusive and elliptical final sentence.
Thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
It is widely known that I have not been a fan of short stories. By reading more of them lately I am discovering what makes a short story satisfying for me, though I am not ready to articulate that clearly yet.
Land of Big Numbers was a miracle. Every story in this collection is great. The author is, I believe, Chinese-American and a journalist who spent four years as a Beijing-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She seems to have soaked up the essence of 21st century Chinese life.
Each story grabbed me from the first line. It was as if the characters were right in the room with me. Tension builds quietly yet relentlessly tale by tale. I found myself almost holding my breath until I learned what would happen, each time for 10 stories. The theme tying them together is the better life for Chinese people under the current government at the cost of some of their freedom. A heady concept created by this author without outright judgement.
Thanks to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club for selecting Land of Big Numbers as the January 2021 book. Thanks to Brad Listi at the Otherppl podcast for a penetrating interview with Te-Ping Chen. I will be watching for more from this author.
A solid debut collection of short stories set in contemporary China. Chen's stories illustrate people adrift in their country and often faced with personal moral dilemmas which have arisen out of societal changes and their need to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. The last story - Gubeikou Spirit - is probably the story that stuck with me most, and is about how a group of commuters adapt after they are trapped in a train station for several months with no explanation.
I think these stories will resonate most with those with a familiarity with Chinese society and politics, but I'd recommend this to anyone interested in well-written and thought-provoking speculative short fiction.
Thank you Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Land of Big Numbers is a series of speculative short stories that touch on different aspects of Chinese culture and history, in a very broad scope. Each story is a like a brief vignette the lives of the characters and often end abruptly, leaving you to wonder what will happen to the characters as they move on in their lives. Personal favorites were New Fruit, Land of Big Numbers, and Gubeikou Spirit.
I really enjoyed the speculative aspect of these stories. Each one is a bit different. Some have more obvious connections to an element of Chinese history/government, and others have a more broad insight into the Chinese spirit (if that's one way to put it) and human nature.
I think some of the elements of Chinese culture can be hard to pick up for someone who is not Chinese, however, the stories all touch on different elements of human nature that can be enjoyed by everyone.
These stories have a slice of life feel, but in a slightly dark and melancholic way, with a dose of speculative settings. The feel of these stories actually remind me a bit of Makoto Shinkai's anime movies.
Thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this book.
Land of Big Numbers, a fine collection by Te-Ping Chen, puts faces on the faceless multitudes of today's Republic of China. Each entry highlights life experiences that illustrate both the points of similarity as well as difference of populations in China and in America. In several we meet citizens who while never having left the country's borders, have barely left rural villages for the cities, but many bring to life immigrants and the effects of cultural differences on their lives, not always to the good. Whether its a young husband, a college professor, carrying a huge burden of unassuageable guilt, or a prison inmate who mistakenly hitched his aspirations to the wrong person. There is a lovely metaphoric study about the effects of capitalism, and a metaphysical shot of magic realism. But my favorites were the realistic studies of ordinary people leading ordinary lives and the window they opened on the enigma that is today's China.
Even though the stories in Land of Big Numbers didn’t have conclusive endings, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book — the stories were so engrossing that it made up for a lack of neat and tidy endings, and the stories had a Twilight Zone-y feel to them (I love the Twilight Zone — original series). The stories were weird, but good.
The last story, Gubeikou Spirit was utterly bizarre — dozens of commuters are trapped on a subway platform for months after their train fails to come because the transit authority will not let them leave due to a stupid rule — commuters cannot exit a station that they entered; they must exit at another station. In the meantime, staff and the press come and go; it is only the commuters who are not allowed to leave. As I was reading this story, I was thinking about all the times the SkyTrain system in my city was shut down for hours due to a suicide on the track, a computer shutdown, a “track issue”, or a fire (once some maintenance guys accidentally set a bird's nest on fire; another time some hobos set a dumpster near a station on fire).
while certain emotional beats were missed, and select short stories lacked nuance, this debut collection was shockingly engrossing throughout. if nothing else, the atmosphere and existential dread te-ping chen stirs up is well worth the more monotonous moments of land of big numbers. usually, i need fully fleshed out characters to carry a story, but here—surprisingly—i was content to coast by on the inscrutable mood and modern china’s sometimes magical moments. standouts for me include “lulu,” “hotline girl,” and “gubeikou spirit.” 3.5ish energy, i think.
I was really looking forward to reading this book. But, after two tries, I didn't really find anything here to my taste. I tried about half of the stories before giving up. Oh, well. Not for me!
The book may well work for you -- the average rating here is currently 4 stars. You should read some of the other 2-star reviews here. And see if your library has a copy, is my advice. It likely won't take you long to find out if her stories suit you. Sure didn't work for me.
This review is the one that brought me tor try it, from Foreign Policy's China Brief, February 03, 2021: "This sharp collection of short stories about modern China, by the Wall Street Journal’s former Beijing correspondent, is as fine a portrayal of the last decade as any work of nonfiction. The stories range from tragic to satirical, but they’re rooted in a close observation of life in China—and in the surreal ups and downs of everyday life, bureaucracy, and oppression.
“Lulu,” the opening story, hits hard in its depiction of siblings’ lives divided by the decision to go along with or stand against the system. My personal favorite is “Flying Machine,” about the endless ingenuity and survival skills of Chinese farmers."
I rarely read a collection of stories because usually I love some of them and hate the others and then I'm confused about my ambivalent feelings towards the whole medley. So lets look at the stories in this book:
1. LULU - a story of the overachiever that went astray told from the perspective of the less talented twin brother. Deliciously bitter, beautifully written. 5 stars 2. HOTLINE GIRL - the title hotline girl is meeting her troubled boyfriend years after breakup. Utopian dream clashing with reality. Solid but a little too on the nose. 4 stars 3. NEW FRUIT - mysterious fruit is bringing complex feelings to anyone that consumes it. Straightforward call to settle the past horrors of the Cultural Revolution. 5 stars 4. FIELD NOTES ON A MARRIAGE - a girl marries a very secretive Chinese man that won't talk about his past. Wonky timeline makes it a bit confusing. 3 stars 5. FLYING MACHINE - poor villager decides to build his own plane to impress local Party representative. I couldn't see any depth here. 3 stars 6. ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE - an inmate tells how he got into a prison. Author was experimenting with idiolect and it turn out pretty bizarre. 2 stars 7. SHANGHAI MURMUR - clash between working and upper class focused around very expensive, missing pen. Beginning was looking like it was taken from different story. 4 stars 8. LAND OF BIG NUMBERS - working class man decides to join the hype and starts aggressively investing in Chinese stock market. A very intriguing depiction of the disconnect between the generations in the same family. 4 stars 9. BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY - a marriage between a Chinese woman and US man as an allegory of Chinese and US complicated relationship. Heavy-handed. 3 stars 10. GUBEIKOU SPIRIT - a group of passengers is getting locked up and held for weeks at the non-functioning metro station. Another pretty heavy-handed allegory of the life in China with thinly veiled call for another revolution. Feels very personal. 4 stars
The theme of bad, corrupted, self-indulgent, spoiled etc etc etc Chinese government is introduced in all the stories and sometimes it really fits the narrative but most of the time it feels pretty detached. It's just something watched from the distance rather than experienced by the characters and it was really hard for me to tell if that was made on purpose to depict how the government usually affects the life or just squeezed in to have an reoccurring motif to bind the stories together.
masterfully disquieting. if you want to understand modern china through a clear, unromantic lens, I highly recommend giving this a read. every story was compelling, but "lulu", "new fruit", "land of big numbers", and "gubeikou spirit" were particularly incisive
Less of a hard DNF and more of a “now I’ve read three short stories by this author, and I don’t feel the need to read more.” Helpfully, the first three seem to have gotten the highest marks from reviewers, and were a 3-star bunch for me. I want a bit more from short stories than these offer: either stronger plots (ideally with a whammy of an ending), or sharper characterization, more vivid detail, more insightful prose.
In “Lulu,” a boy grows up to be a chef-cum-professional videogamer, while his brilliant twin sister is jailed as an activist. Has the seeds of something hard-hitting, but the story moves so quickly through so many years, it’s more telling than showing.
“Hotline Girl” was probably the strongest for me: a call center employee’s ex tracks her down begging for a conversation. The ex proves very believable for someone who’s been abusive and there’s some intensity in the interplay between the two. But the end is deflating; it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be ambiguous or not. Also, I’m not a fan of works that shade from realistic into invented/dystopian/absurdist when reading about societies with which I have insufficient familiarity to immediately identify the fictional elements. As far as I can tell from brief online searches, neither government Satisfaction Offices (customer service hotlines empowered to solve people’s problems) or IDs with built-in tracking devices and lanyards color-coded by residency actually exist in modern China, but I can’t be certain where the line between real and fictional is here.
“New Fruit”: One of those stories narrated by the collective “we,” in which a newly created fruit causes people first to feel better about themselves, but the next season to feel worse. The focus is on the responses of several residents of an apartment block.
Overall, not quite what I’m seeking in short stories, and as it turns out, the author is Chinese-American rather than Chinese (at several points it seemed as if the characters were actually speaking English). But obviously it has worked for a good number of people.
This is a unique collection of short stories examining various aspects of Chinese culture from the perspective of natives and immigrants who left for other places. I loved the glimpse into another culture and even the pace of the stories was different. The stories often had me pausing after to think about what I read and process which I think is the mark of a good book. The characters were all unique and intriguing. My favorite story was the last one. A group of commuters are trapped in a train station following a mechanical error because as the station staff say passengers need to exit a different station than the enter. After months reporters and even the Mayor come in to see how they’re doing and praise their spirit as they support their country and government by staying put. The writing is excellent and I flew through the stories, even with stopping to process what I was reading.
There is nothing wrong with this collection, per se, but there's also nothing very right with it. It's a perfectly serviceable book, with perfectly serviceable stories--sadly "serviceable" doesn't exactly make for very memorable reading.
I think my main issue with this book is that I didn't really see the point to any of its stories. Regardless of their subject matter--and the subject matter does vary, so there's that--these stories all felt one-note, flat. When I read a short story, I want to feel like there's a reason that we are following its characters at that particular time in their lives; that is to say, I want the short story to have a narrative reason to exist--why this moment? why these characters at this moment? The problem with Land of Big Numbers is that its stories don't really address these questions. Characters are introduced, their life events narrated, their relationships highlighted, but none of this comes together to form any sort of cohesive narrative, one with tension or a climax or a sense of significance of some kind. I felt like I was just reading about a sequence of events wherein different things happened to different characters; I didn't feel like I was reading a story.
Thank you so much to Raincoast Books for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!
I absolutely loved this book and how it does not just serve as an interesting piece of literature but also as a meditation on the ideas of country, nationality, and a citizen's place in the larger scale. I also liked the title of this book and how it's a play on the concept of the population; very clever title.
Overall, the author does an excellent job introducing the reader to a series of characters and making you care about them and their stories. Usually when you read a story set in China you never really get to see the diversity of the country. This book breaks that typical mold and shows how truly diverse China is and how massive the country is. It is obvious that the author really knows what they are talking about and goes about describing it all in acute and precise writing and can either pull at your heartstrings or make you really think about what is, or is not happening.
This is truly an amazing work of art that should be shared and passed around.
Te-Ping Chen has created a beautiful collection of short stories highlighting the different facets of life within China and Chinese immigrants in America. Each story is so beautiful and richly drawn and highlights different aspects of Chinese culture and history. As it always happens, you will become attached to certain stories, and for me, it was the story of a young woman who becomes a political activist. Lulu is strong, determined, and fights for what she believes in. I strongly recommend you pick up this collection of stories.
7.4 stars. I can at least remember some of the short stories, and that's really all I need from short story collection... I really liked some of the short stories in this tho!! Definitely a mixed bag but the mean is pretty high. My favourite was the last one. Book is at that junction of magic realism that it still feels plausible... which I guess is the purpose of the book (some things in the world is stranger than fiction type beat). Definitely some political commentary about China's government implicit in the setting but in a very creative way, and the magic realism actually added to that kind of commentary... dk how to explain it but if anyone reads the last story (Gubeikou Spirit) hmu to talk abt it it's quite interesting
These stories were good but they all felt somehow incomplete. Maybe that was the author's intention. At the end of each story, I thought there could have been more. More clarity, more paragraphs to untie the knots of uneasiness it caused me. It might have been the endings - unelegant abrupt endings that could be seen as writing style or flair. Despite that, I appreciate this newfound insight into the lives of people enduring the dizzying speed of changes in China.
This is a collection of ten very readable short stories which are mostly based in contemporary China. Te-Ping Chen is an imaginative storyteller with several of her tales clearly meant to be allegories of life in the communist-capitalist state. Moreover, she has an easy turn of phrase in keeping with her journalistic background.
My one criticism, and the reason for only three stars, is that most of her stories seem to be missing their endings; they just stop after the beginning and the middle. They are like good book chapters that prompt you to push onto the next except when you do there is a brand new story and I found it a little disappointing.