When China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, it promised that the accompanying economic boom would bring with it ”advances in culture, health, education, sport[s] and, not least of all, corresponding progress in human rights causes.” (“Olympics; Beijing Wins Bid for 2008 Olympic Games” by Jere Longman, New York Times, 14 July 2001) Eager to distance itself from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and eager to meet the environmental and humanitarian standards expected of a modern super-power, the Chinese government enacted a series of seemingly wide reforms in order to keep these promises, including but not limited to reducing the rampant pollution that had resulted from unfettered industrialism, and in reining back the human rights abuses that had characterized the government for too long.
Unfortunately these promises proved only short-sighted stop-gaps or deliberate obfuscations of undesirable truths. Though the government spent over $20 billion cleaning Beijing and surrounding areas of air and water pollution, the changes did not stick: weeks after the Olympics finished the city’s levels of pollution had risen to pre-game standards, the factories were active again and rushing to compensate for the government-forced closures. By February of 2014, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences had found Beijing “barely suitable for living”.
As much to-do as the Chinese government made of turning around its shoddy track-record on human rights violations by allowing designated areas for protesters and by allowing journalists more than customary freedom, Amnesty International China expert Verena Harp was quick to note that this very track record had worsened, not improved, as the Olympics grew closer. That the need to modernize Beijing had given officials the perfect excuse “to clean up the beggars, petitioners and illegal taxi drivers” by sentencing many of them to four years of “re-education through labor”.
All to say nothing of the 1.5 million Bejing residents the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions estimates were displaced from their homes as part of major reconstruction projects. The changes were merely cosmetic, the promises only so much blustering, the lie of modernization a state-imposed story that only served to highlight how little distance there truly was between the past and the present state of China’s governance.
Little wonder, then, that Susan Barker chooses this time, this place, from which to launch the withering series of investigations that characterize The Incarnations. It is ostensibly the story of Wang Jun, a taxi driver in Beijing, and set just months before the 2008 Olympics are to begin. He encounters a mysterious stalker who sends him a series of notes allegedly containing the story of their shared past lives.
However, Barker’s real concern rests with the way the state disenfranchises people not just from their governments, but from their historical and personal pasts and, consequently, from themselves. Wang’s history – his histories – are all just platforms to explore this idea. It is presented in a series of novellas spread between Wang’s story, which showcases thousands of years of China’s history in order to suggest that no matter how much the country might seem to change on the face it, it is beset by a cycle of violence and corruption. Again and again the promises of connection and renewal are sabotaged by the machinations of political systems that divide their participants from their pasts while allowing them roles only as the oppressor the oppressed, the killer or the killed.
It’s not always Wang’s past self that murders his stalker, nor his stalker’s reincarnation who murders Wang. Regardless of who is responsible, the matter is precipitated always by a bout of forgetfulness or a desire to break ties with the past in order that they might escape their own debasement.
When the concubine Bamboo, in one of Wang’s past lives, betrays the consort Swallow, an earlier incarnation of Wang’s stalker, by revealing her plan to murder Emperor Jiajing, it’s a matter of political gain, a move so that she might be crowned Empress rise above her status as lowly consort. Though Yi Moon, another of the stalker’s lives, owes Zhang Liya, Wang’s second-to-last reincarnation, more than she can express for protecting her from the witch hunts of the Cultural Revolution, she is quick to betray her one time-friend when she finds it offers her a chance to move beyond her political marginalization as the daughter of a supposed capitalist. It’s a broad-strokes conceit that works well with the fabulistic mode, as these kinds of allegories demand, and which allows Barker to demonstrate her facility for a broad-strokes writing.
Indeed, Barker has a knack for conveying the atmospheres of long-removed eras and the characters’ places within these milieus in a mere 30 pages, capturing more than some authors do in their 800-page epics (e.g., Ken Follet, Diana Gabaldon and James Clavell). She has an ear for both euphemistic language and literal naming (the aptly named “Brother Coming”, for example, allows for some true gallows humor) that lends these passages the raw, ugly powers we ask for from the best of folk tales. Barker also conveys a gleeful delight in and respect for bawdy humanity and a fear of brutal carnality that lends these stories a powerful symbolism, which are all the more effective because it is so simple, so direct. The last of the novellas “The Anti-capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls”, is a self-contained masterpiece, a political horror story that conveys all of the novel’s themes and stylistic strengths in microcosm.
When she returns to Wang’s story, though, with its more realistic milieu, its focus on more psychologically nuanced characters and a mystery plot that reads too frequently like warmed over Chandler or soft-boiled Murakami (e.g., a disaffected, disenfranchised young man stumbles through an alienating urban lifestyle until he finds himself caught up in a mystery, finds himself reunited with a former lover and finds himself wondering if the two aren’t connected), she forgets to abandon these affectations wholly.
Worse, she tries to combine them, to fit the fantastic qualities of those more old-fashioned stories with the grimier style of the present tale, but the two styles sabotage each other. Their distinct demands are too different to reconcile. Her excessive attention to detail may work wonderfully in a 30-page novella, but over a 200-some-odd-page novella, it bludgeons. The excessive descriptions, which sounded so lovely and worked so beautifully in older, slightly fantastical settings, sound overindulgent when married to the language of the noir thriller. The detailing of Beijing, with its “skyscrapers rising like bamboo after the rain”, “masses shrieking into cellphones”, “wreaths of cigarette smoke”, “billboards of athletes… China’s national heroes, muscles ripping and taut” and its million-and-one more sights may be meant to depict detail to the reader, but it also smothers the plot and pacing.
Meanwhile, Barker seems so intent on giving the characters a distinct style of speaking — somewhere between the didactic one used in the stories of Wang’s past lives and that no-nonsense patois expected from noir protagonist — that she sabotages them. People “spit” things like, “He’s an awful man. He deserves to go to jail!” or warn others to, “Ignore what the teachers say. Forget what they teach you in those lessons”, with such sincerity that it lends their exchanges an air of parody they do not deserve.
Finally, Barker never loses her desire to state that what works best is implied. Her constant reminders that the city remains disgusting despite its wealth and modernizing appearance, that the sky of Beijing, “blue and streaked with cirrus clouds” is just a distraction from the “same sordid alleys… (still) smelling of beer, gutter urine and the sweet rot of cabbage in bins” hammer home too bluntly a thematic reality the reader should know. There was some telling and appropriate detail in how characters such as “Eunuch Loyal One” and “Concubine Bamboo” were named and so defined by their jobs. No matter how thematically appropriate, there’s something only grating about the fact that Wang is known to everyone as “Driver Wang”, and that his daughter is named Echo.
Ironically, it’s this very need to push the central themes of the story that divides the reader from the characters and which robs Wang’s own story of the humanity it deserves. Certainly it’s not without its own power or lacking for moments of genuine pathos. Scenes of Wang’s year in a mental hospital are horrifying, his dehumanization not just a metaphor for the way the political machine divides one from oneself, but a deeply sad human reality. His blossoming romance with Zheng is sweet, their affairs some of the novel’s most touching moments. It’s carefully constructed, wholly believable and makes full use of the more psychological style Barker adopts for these modern sections.
The problems arise when Barker tries to explain the story of Wang’s mental deterioration. Though it’s thematically necessary that his unwillingness to accept the story of his past lives, his unwillingness to confront his past with Zheng, and his unwillingness to confront the reality of his mental illness, should drive him to destruction (we know as soon as we discover that he was once a History major that his undoing will come down to an inability to make sense of his own history), but it seems absurd that the good-natured Wang should so quickly become so paranoid, even despite his family’s history of schizophrenia.
When Barker has him beat Yida, his wife, to prove that his attempts to distance himself from his father have done nothing but make him into another petty tyrant identical to the man he so despises, it doesn’t feel quite right. When Zheng forgives Wang for assaulting him in public and even agrees to go on a taxi ride with him that he has to know will be fata,l it feels narratively stacked in the worst of ways. Even if in love, Zheng is too canny not to recognize how unstable Wang is at this point (he did beat him within an inch of his life the day before) and Wang has deteriorated to the point that he comes across as a cartoon-like madman.
This method of storytelling sacrifices the humanity and individuality of the characters to push theme, to push an intentioned narrative and in doing so embraces exactly the kind of hypocritical, authoritarian revisionism it rightly rails against. In the end neither Barker nor Wang is able to reconcile the past with the present.
Despite these larger structural and stylistic flaws, however, The Incarnations is not a book so easily dismissed. Novels are, by their very nature, unwieldy things and how much more so a novel which seeks in a mere 400 pages to capture the sweep of China’s vast history and the psychological nuance of dozens of distinct characters. Concessions can be made for ambition, especially when such ambition is realized so beautifully, if infrequently, as it is in this novel; even if the wider narrative is disappointing, it can be ignored. The Incarnations still works perfectly as a collection of studied, precise short stories unified by simple but powerful themes and a bevy of stylistic strengths.