Wednesday 18 January 2012

The Fat Years

Chan Koonchung, 2011
(January 2012)

Trailers for movies suck, in that they have no qualms including massive spoilers if they’re dramatic enough. Being the intellectual snob that I am, I’d thought that books were above this, but increasingly it appears not. The blurb on this promises, in addition to “a message that will rock the world…” (their bold and ellipses), a kidnap (again, their bold) which doesn’t occur until page 225. This is a 300 page novel.

What’s worse is that it’s marketed as a thriller (see the cover shot above). It’s not especially thrilling if you spend 3/4 of the book knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

In any case this clearly isn’t a thriller. Concerning and in places terrifying, certainly, but not thrilling. It’s a look at China’s 21st Century ascendency and the Chinese Communist Party’s not-so secret plans for, well, world domination, really. As such, it’s another book in which the ideas it contains are more important than the plot used to convey them.

And it’s good that the ideas are important, because this is awkward to read, at best. The first section of the book is almost epistolary, written from a variety of first-person perspectives. There’s then a slightly jarring transition to an omniscient third-person narrator for the second section, and by the third and last part the author is treating us to long italicized asides on the motivation of various characters.

The narrative voice is both frustratingly inconsistent, but also dully uniform. The first-person sections all share a bland, homogeneous voice, despite the characters supposedly having wildly differing personalities and motivations. Though this could be a result of the translation.

There are obvious parallels with Huxley and Orwell here, and more recently it reminded me of The City and The City. What it reminded me of most, however, was American Psycho. Not the bit with the rat, more’s the pity, but the satire on people's willingness to place importance on superficial fripperies, and to mistake that for happiness, while ignoring the structural and societal weaknesses surrounding them. I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if Old Chen had started bitching about someone else’s business card.

As I was reading this, China announced plans for a moon landing. We are indeed living in interesting times.


  1. I think a lot of it is producers/whoever just not trusting the audience to have any sort of attention span. It's also why they keep flashing the same crap up over and over again.

    I don't mind hints to keep you interested, but don't give the game away right from the off. The sixth sense was awful for this. You know the kid sees dead people and you know there's a huge 'twist' at the end. What could that be, I wonder?

  2. Yeah, very interesting times.

  3. Hmm. Maybe I should cut the guy some slack for the dodgy narrative voice and just give him credit for writing at all...