Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung

The Fat YearsThe Fat Years by Chan Koonchung
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years is the first and final title I've put on my “Currently Reading” list. The book has received criticism here for being stilted and didactic, but I found it quite a breezy read — until the final 25 pages, when Chan props up a puppet character to recite an “alternate” Chinese history that accounts for the month that's gone missing from the Chinese collective memory.

The missing month poses no mystery whatsoever to Western readers, and probably not to Chinese readers, either. But as a literary conceit, it's a sturdy enough vehicle to pull readers through the salons and commercial venues and evangelical Christian churches that have gone viral in contemporary rural China. The characters spend a lot of time speculating on the “lost” history, and the ascendant direction China is taking. Midway through the novel, Chan invokes Paul Auster, and though I could see parallels to Auster's baffled, anxious seekers, I found Chan's protagonists and their quest to be more akin to Douglas Coupland's determined secular materialists, who can't quite shake the paranoid feeling that Something Too Large To Be Named is shaping their destiny in manifestly unpleasant ways.

The bulk (sorry) of The Fat Years is eminently readable, but I finally ground to halt during the final monologue. The book lay beside my bed for the last six months, until last week, when I picked it up to see how much I had left to read. I was abashed to discover it was less than five pages. Those five pages didn't go anywhere I hadn't anticipated. Were it not for the rigid history of digital record, I could claim to have finished this book months ago. But you and I know the Truth.

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