The following is a review of Xujun Eberlein’s newest book, Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not About Mao. This review refers to the Asian edition of the text, published in Hong Kong by Blacksmith books. In the interest of full disclosure, ChinaGeeks received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher. Also, fair warning, this review contains some foul language. We know that seems weird for a book review, but we stand by it anyway.
I’ve been reading Xujun Eberlein’s work for nearly a year now, though originally I had no idea she wrote fiction. For those who don’t already know, Eberlein manages the excellent blog Inside-Out China. But when I saw the cover of Apologies Forthcoming, it baffled me a bit. “Stories Not About Mao” is an interesting subtitle. Was it meant to be taken at face value? Or is it a Sun Also Rises sort of title, meant to call attention to Mao in its own oblique way? I plunged into the book, eager to find out, but I also contacted Mrs. Eberlein, who had this to say about the subtitle:
[A] subtitle was required by my HK publisher – my guess is it’s their tradition to have subtitles for all their books, so it is unique to the HK edition. The US edition does not have a subtitle. I used “Stories not about Mao” as the subtitle because, though the stories in this book are mostly set in the Mao era (or immediately after) , it was not my intention to point fingers at a particular scapegoat (there are already plenty of books doing that), rather my interest as a writer is mainly in the exploration and display of human nature. Mao alone would not have achieved the great calamity of the CR; the whole nation participated with enthusiasm, and one really had to be there to see how sincere and fanatic people were. Yet decades later all we heard and read were accusations against a small number of leading figures, with little reflection of what “we” did. In a sense, my stories are about “us,” the participants, not “him.”
The stories in Apologies Forthcoming, while perhaps not political, are certainly historical. In her best moments, Eberlein takes massive historical moments and infuses them with personality, emotion, and life. Some are set in during the Cultural Revolution, some during the eighties, and one — the final story, “Second Encounter” — during the present day; all but one — “Second Encounter” — are set in China. The characters in them are not politicians. They are people, and one gets the impression from time to time that there are bits of Eberlein’s own personal experience woven throughout.
The collection’s weakest moments are when Eberlein resorts to somewhat dry explanation of the history. As the book is in English, she certainly would have good reason to expect that some of her readers are relatively ignorant, but the explanations really only serve to take the reader out of the real story for a moment. Sometimes, sadly, a moment is all it takes. In encountering these moments of explication — which are few — I was reminded of something David Simon, writer of the acclaimed TV program The Wire, once said in an interview:
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out.
After the first few stories, however, Eberlein’s explication of history happily fades into the background and her heart-wrenching characters are allowed to take the forefront. Beginning with “Feathers”, the fourth of eight stories, every story in the book is absolutely excellent.
In “Feathers”, for example, Eberlein uses a child’s perspective — a narrative technique she wields multiple times throughout the collection and with great success — to communicate the pain of loss and, simultaneously the power of fiction — or delusion.
“Watch the Thrill” is an absolutely chilling piece, narrated once again by a child who is entertained by the horrors of Cultural Revolution excess — as well as the natural cruelties of life — because these things liberate him, momentarily, from the soul-crushing boredom of day-to-day life. Childlike innocence takes on a rather frightening face here, and Eberlein’s ending to the story is fantastically abrupt — and powerful. It is one of those moments that can only exist on the written page: in the HK edition, perhaps intentionally, the story ends at the very bottom of a page, so that the reader turns to the next one expecting more to the story and finding none. It is a cold realization, but these moments are why we read books.
“Disciple of the Masses” is enthralling, and heartbreaking. “The Randomness of Love” is fascinating. But if the star of this show isn’t “Feathers” or “Watch the Thrill”, it’s “Second Encounter”. The final tale in the book, it ties the other stories together in a roundabout sort of way, leaving you feeling like perhaps you’ve just read a novel disguised as collection of short fiction. Given that, I don’t want to give away much about the plot, but suffice it to say it is powerful, and it ends the book perfectly.
Eberlein does have another writing quirk that bears mentioning here. When writing dialogue, she translates some colloquial Chinese expressions fairly literally. This adds color and character to her language, and I enjoyed it, but it may bother some readers to see, for example, that she has clearly rendered the Chinese curse 他妈的 as “His mother’s” rather than the more typical (if indirect) translation, “Fuck.”
Apologies Forthcoming is not perfect, but parts of it are. Florid praise draped over the back cover as it is, I think I shall put it more simply: it is a book you should read. Eberlein has done what we so often forget to do, she has put people into history and let them tell their own stories. These are not stories about Mao. They are stories about Shanzi, Sail, Wang Qiang, Wei Dong, and many more. The names may mean nothing to you now, but given a chance, some of them will surely find a place in your heart.