Jonathan Tel: The Beijing of Possibilities

When I got this book in the mail I was actually turned off by the cover.  However, I’d seen a couple of blurbs (probably citing one source) lining The Beijing Possibilities (2009) with W.G. Sebald and Italo Calvino.  That is about the highest praise I can imagine, so even if it misses the mark a bit it should still be an impressive book.  I opened it up and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the first short story “The Year of the Gorilla,” about a Gorillagram courier who stops a thief in the road and finds himself the subject of blog and media scrutiny since the incident was caught on a cell phone camera.  The brave — or at least innocuous — action becomes a strange symbol for anyone wanting to talk about it (reminding me of Obama killing that fly):

The story was alluded to on a discussion board: “It is a shame that sticks-in-the-mud are opposing a market economy with Chinese characteristics.  The last thing we need is to have a Gorilla barge in every time we shake hands on a deal!”  Which led to further criticism, as well as some support of the Gorilla for “preserving Maoist values.”  An editorial in the July issue of the Beijing Financial Review referred somewhat obscurely to “Gorillas and their ilk who shoot sparrows with a pearl” in the context of defending the opening up of the mining industry to foreign investment.

I took The Beijing of Possibilities to the exercise room and, because I didn’t want to stop reading, stayed on the exercise bike for much longer than I usually do. 

Review copy courtesy of Other Press.

Review copy courtesy of Other Press.

Let’s get my view of the Sebald / Calvino comparison out of the way:  The primary connection to Sebald, I’m assuming, is that throughout the book, just barely interrupting the text, there are pictures of Beijing and its inhabitants — one picture per story, to be exact.  I suppose one could stretch another connection to Sebald by saying that this book also deals with the relationship of time and place and we ghosts who move through both, but that is not a strong theme here nor is it done in at all the same way or to the same end.  To me, the connection to Calvino, while still an overstatement, is more appropriate.  Tel creates a very confident voice that rolls with the story’s momentum.  Also, these stories aren’t weighed down by reality; the comedy or absurdity (like policemen, in mid-chase, donning dresses flung at them from a fleeing felon) work to enhance the narratives rather than detract from them.  I liked it very much.  If you see more of the Sebald / Calvino connection, please let me know  — as much as I admire those two writers, I’m not an expert in their craft.

The Beijing of Possibilities is a compilation of twelve short stories, each with Beijing playing some role, though the stories themselves vary widely in time period and demographic.  Each story stands on its own.  There is a slight, almost metafictional thread tied around them at the end, but in a way that does not threaten the independence and individuality of each story.  In fact, the thread doesn’t even force the reader to look at a story differently. 

The first lines in the brief preface (which turns out to be very much a part of the book and not simply a preface) are fun as they introduce, particularly to readers like me who don’t know much about Beijing, the world this book will inhabit:

Beijing is the center of the universe.  Ask anybody who lives there.  “The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”

This center of the universe is also the site of a highly volatile juxtapostion of two seemingly disparate worlds.  Old Beijing, with its heritage (and its Communism), is merging with a newer cosmopolitan/capitalistic new Beijing.  One of my favorite visions of this is in the story “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch”: “A delectably shimmery lightweight bra, combining traditional elegance with the latest hi-tech lift.”  This also happened to be one of my favorite stories.  In it a lonely modern-day Beijinger who writes copy for advertisements (hence, the description of the bra) contacts a dating service who, through the wonders of modern technology, hooks him up with a princess from the Ming Dynasty.  They communicate via text messaging.  Unsurprisingly hilarious, this story is surprisingly touching and complex. 

Another of my favorite stories is “The Three Lives of Little Yu.”  It begins like this:

A married couple without an heir, what are they but living ghosts?  They had tried for five years already without success.  So they decided to buy a child.  A boy would be beyond their means, but a girl — in those years, in that district of Hebei Province, people were practically giving them away.

This sentence might sound a bit didactic, as if Tel were trying to showcase some idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture rather than create a story, but that’s not true.  In fact, Tel does an excellent job creating this foreign culture without making it look like he’s teaching us and without making it look like that foreign culture is being recreated here for our amusement, as if this book were a window at a zoo.  This particular story is very sad and very touching, and it doesdo an excellent job relating this culture to us while showing us how that culture is conflicted with itself.  In this story a couple purchases a baby girl in 1959.  Her name is Yu.  Sadly, Yu dies, leaving only her name written in a tablet as she was learning how to write.  The couple is determined to find her again.  In 1965 they buy another baby girl, another Yu.  Her character has changed, but they do not doubt their little Yu has come back to them.  Tragically, again Yu perishes.  Finally, in the summer of 1984, the couple took of for Beijing to find Yu again: “. . . most likely she’d be reincarnated into comfort and wealth this time.  And the place to find happiness in modern China (they knew this from radio and indoctrination sessions) was no longer, as it had been for millennia, a peaceful village in the countryside.  Now it was the city.  And the greatest city in the world is Beijing.”  This story is one of the best in the book, a wonderful example of Tel’s comedic observations (“In the corridor, people were walking to the toilet with a heightened sense of purpose.”) and touching intimacy. 

There were some slower and less successful parts in the book.  I liked the stranger stories, particularly the ones dealing with provincial life confronting Beijing, but I wasn’t as big a fan of some of the middle stories about sometimes wealthier people making do in Beijing.  They felt too similar to any number of short stories about individuals adapting to or failing to adapt to changes an ultra modern world, and to me they felt less original.  Probably only three or four of the stories didn’t succeed for me, and that was probably because the stories surrounding them were so original and well done.  Had I allowed more time to pass between stories (I basically read this book cover to cover in a day), it might have been different.  There were several more stories that worked very well, and for these the entire book is worth reading.

7 thoughts on “Jonathan Tel: The Beijing of Possibilities

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Sounds very interesting. Any comparisons with Pamuk, Trevor?

  2. Trevor says:

    I hate to say it, Lee, but the only Pamuk I’ve read is the first eighty pages of My Name Is Red. I was thoroughly enjoying that book, but left it on an airplane. When I rebought it, the time for it apparently had past. I remember that the first eighty pages were great but so dense I felt as if I’d already read 400 pages. I wouldn’t say that anything here reminded me of Pamuk, but I’d be very interested about what others with more knowledge thought.

    By the way, here is another review of The Beijing of Possibilities giving it high praise. I only read it this morning, and it presents other successful aspects of the book.

  3. Nadia says:

    I can totally understand being turned off by the cover because just looking at it creeps me out. However, I loved your post on it because it made me want to go out and get the book (even though the cover is creepy). The story about little Yu sounds tragic and the first story you mention about the man who stops a thief and is scrutinized for his actions sounds really interesting to me and rather modern. Looking forward to reading these stories. I don’t know much about Beijing except what a friend of mine has told (she is from Beijing) and what a couple of my friends from Hong Kong have said, so it would nice to learn a bit more about mainland China, even if it is through a fiction book. Cheers Trevor!

  4. Trevor says:

    I’m looking forward to your impression of this book, Nadia. As you can see from the review, it was great — much better than I was expecting when I got it. But I don’t think it was good just because it exceeded my expectations; it was genuinely well written and interesting and emotional.

    Also, I think it’s worth noting that not only will you be getting a view of Beijing in a book of fiction but also in a book written by a westerner (though Tel has lived in Beijing off and on throughout the years, it seems). Best wishes in reading!

  5. Kerry says:

    Great review. The cover would have put me off too. Your descriptions of the stories makes this a mandatory TBR addition. I have only just recently begun reading a collection of Calvino stories (which I absolutely love), so any comparison to Calvino strikes me as high praise. Plus, you liked it and Calvino is one of your favorites, so…

    Besides as a long-time reader, I know you are a trustworthy source. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  6. Trevor says:

    I hope I disappoint you now, Kerry! Have you read any of Calvino’s novels? I actually tend to like his short stories more than the novels I’ve read, but I have to say I’m not that well read up on Calvino. The novels I read were years ago, and since I started my blog I’ve read only a few of his short stories. However, I finally got a hold of an Everyman’s Library edition of If on a winter’s night a traveller, and though I’ve read the first chapter many times, this will be my first time going through the whole book.

  7. Isabel says:

    I am interested in reading about the snapshot of life in China today.

    The internet famous Gorrilla made me giggle.

    I guess the creepy arms are supposed to be Yu? Hate the blank eyes on the cover.

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