'Land of the Big Numbers'

‘Land of the Big Numbers’ (Mariner) by Te-Ping Chen.

What can a collection of short stories portraying the diversity of China’s people say to America? Much, if those stories are from the pen of Te-Ping Chen.

It’s not that the 10 stories in Te-Ping Chen’s fiction debut, “Land of the Big Numbers” (Mariner), are not fiercely China-centric. As we would expect from the author — a Wall Street Journal staffer and Chinese-American who worked the China beat in Beijing — Te-Ping Chen writes with insight, illustrating the country’s social strata with a deft, human touch. In this gripping and compelling collection, there is “Lulu,” first published in the New Yorker, exploring the fates of twin siblings — a brilliant student turned dissident and her brother, a professional gamer. A satirical story, “Hotline,” about young women employed at a government center who are tasked with managing citizen satisfaction. A brilliant and touching story, “Flying Machine,” about an elderly farmer aspiring to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party who builds an airplane but doesn’t know how to fly. And the title story, in which a man is drawn into China’s tumultuous stock exchange with life and death consequences.

There are others, including the most haunting of the book, “Gubeikou Spirit.”

In this story, a group of people sit trapped for months on a subway platform when their train fails to arrive. In a governmental Catch-22, they are unable to leave without official permission, but as the group has all of its needs publicly sated, more than a few individuals begin to wonder if they are not better off living out their lives this way.

Te-Ping Chen has said that many of her stories are taken from contemporary headlines and the firsthand observations she covered for the Journal, but these deep gazes into contemporary Chinese society are transformative and resonate globally.

This is true even for Americans, who have been accused of looking at the world through a myopic lens. Given the normal cycle of book production — and that stories such as “Lulu” were published long before the United States’ contentious election cycle — it is unlikely that the author was able to uniquely manufacture a ready-made conversation for the U.S. today. But here it is.

In sparse, lingering prose — “a great wasteland of sorrow was opening up in him, unfolding dozens of tiny shacks, terrible squatters setting up residence, banging their miniature liquor bottles against his chest, a hundred feet trampling his organs” — Te-Ping Chen crafts a masterstroke of contemporary literature, both timely and prescient.

The result is a touchstone of Chinese history perfectly positioned in the present.

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