I’ve long been partial to E.M. Forster’s formulation that the role of fiction — or one of them, anyway — is to suggest a “buzz of implication”, a flavor of time and place more nuanced than history allows. That’s because fiction is an art of narrative, of emotion, defined by the singular movements of individuals as they navigate specific corners of the world.
“One of the great pleasures of the (novel),” Jane Smiley has written, “was something outside of the authors’ plot making and character drawing and theme organizing — it was the pleasure I gained from the author’s passing observations or remarks. I came to see these passing phrases as… precious artifacts of what a man — say, Walter Scott — happened to see one day while he was walking down a street in 1810; or what a woman, Elizabeth Bowen, happened to feel one evening while dancing the fox-trot in 1925; or what another man, Nikolai Gogol, happened to smell and hear by the banks of the Dnieper River one morning in 1820.”
The tension is that this particularity becomes a universalizing impulse, allowing us to imagine our way into circumstances that may appear to have little to do with our own.
Such a dynamic resides at the heart of The Fat Years, the first novel by Chinese writer Chan Koonchung to be translated into English. Taking place in 2013, after a global economic crisis so severe that it “makes the shock of 2008 resemble a mere wobble,” the novel posits a world in which China alone is financially and socially stable.
“Only China has been able to recover, surging forward while the others are on the decline,” says Lao Chen, the novel’s sometime narrator and main protagonist, a Taiwanese living in Beijing. “… Even more importantly, there has been no social upheaval; our society is even more harmonious now.”
There’s a catch, though: Somehow, somewhere, the Chinese people have lost a month, the period between the economic collapse and the beginning of “China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy”. Is it mere forgetfulness? Is it a government conspiracy? “Today, a normal person doesn’t remember,” a character named Little Dong tells Lao Chen halfway through the novel. “(T)hose of us who remember are the abnormal ones.”
For Chan, this is the central issue, although, in truth, the lost month is mostly a McGuffin, a hook to draw us into the narrative. More essential is his portrayal of contemporary China as a place of laughter and forgetting, in which acquisitiveness and creature comforts have insulated the population — at least, the socially mobile, urban population — from larger questions of liberty and identity.
“What is the meaning of existence?” Lao Chen’s friend Little Xi asks, before quoting Jean-Paul Sartre: “We must take responsibility for our own lives.” Yet throughout The Fat Years Chan offers a vision of China as a culture in which individual responsibility has been eclipsed by an unspoken pact between the government and its citizens, in which the former offers a constrained facsimile of freedom, and the latter indulges in a fog of consumerist bliss.
“Can we really blame the common people for their historical amnesia?” Lao Chen wonders. “… We are already very free now: 90 percent, or even more, of all subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 percent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn’t that enough? The vast majority of the population cannot even handle 90 percent freedom, they think it’s too much. Aren’t they already complaining about information overload and being entertained to death?”
On the one hand, that’s the stuff of satire, a dystopian riff out of Aldous Huxley or Philip K. Dick. At the same time, Chan is after something deeper, a consideration of the way forgetting influences polity, and in the face of overwhelming options, we lose sight of what we need. “During the Cultural Revolution and at the beginning of Reform and Opening,” he writes, “there were very few books in the bookstores, and everyone knew that the true facts were being suppressed. But, today, thought Lao Chen, there is a profusion of books everywhere, so many they knock you over, but the true facts are still being suppressed. It’s just that people are under the illusion that they are following their own reading preferences and freely choosing what they read.”
There it is again, that information overload — but even more a certain kind of information overload, the overload of trivia. In such a landscape, government doesn’t need to suppress unpleasant history; we do it ourselves, every day, simply by not paying close enough attention to the facts at hand. “For the great majority of young mainland Chinese,” Chan suggests, “the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have their family or teachers ever explained it to them. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history — because no one says anything about it.”
This is it: that sense of the particular with a touch of the universal creeping in. This is what Forster and Smiley were getting at, and it’s a key factor in The Fat Years as well. Here, Chan has crafted a cunning caricature of modern China, with its friction between communism and consumerism, its desire to reframe the Revolution in terms of “market share and the next big thing.” But he has also identified a deeper dislocation, one stretching beyond China.What is the malaise of the West, after all, if not a similar imbalance between materialism and inattention, in which history eludes us not because of anyone erasing it but because we don’t remember anymore? When Chan writes, late in the novel, that “the Central Propaganda organs did do their work, but they were only pushing along a boat that was already on the move,” he may as well be speaking for all of us.
“If the Chinese people themselves had not already wanted to forget,” he notes, “we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.” The point is that we are responsible for what happens, just as we have always been.