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More cunning than gorgeous or shocking

January 31, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

‘Marrying Buddha’
(Zhou) Wei Hui
2005 Constable and Robinson (London) 248 pp.

Trivial, narcissistic trash. I picked up a copy of this because I had been too busy to catch the author’s 2000 international bestseller, ‘Shanghai Baby’ (six million copies sold in 34 languages according to Wikipedia) and was curious to see what all the fuss had been about; but I couldn’t get past page 23 of this, it is so awful.

Chapter 1 has the heroine (Coco, a famous Chinese novelist) just back home from New York and a bit depressed, “smoking again, and drinking, and swallowing sedatives one after the other” following a passionate affair with a ¾ Japanese ¼ Italian documentary film maker. So she goes out with her friend, Xi’er, who is famous for being the first person in China to have had a sex change. They wine and dine and then go off for a foot massage, which Xi’er recommends as “ten times more decadent than an orgasm.” Coco certainly seems to get off on it: “Every cell of my body sighed, trembling, and I could picture the rose-petal of red between my legs as it slowly began to contract and unfold. [Er, pardon? Contract and unfold?] Gorgeous and shocking.”

She wakes up the next morning in Chapter 2 with a fifteen year old (male) foot masseur in bed beside her but, all too predictably, cannot remember what had happened. How shockingly decadent! We know it happened twice though, because there are “two used condoms” by the bed. (I am uncertain whether to read this as a double dose of decadence or a token of politically correct AIDS awareness.)

If it has been tiresome so far, Chapter 3’s description of Coco first clapping eyes on Muju, the real love object back in New York, signals loud and clear that the author is utterly devoid of literary talent. It wasn’t love at first sight, apparently. (Well, fancy!) Indeed:

“At that exact moment I had no way of knowing that following his destiny from a distant past, he would soon drift spirit-like before me and become my intimate lover, my eternally bound family, my god and my child. I didn’t know that we were fated to hold each other close and make love, to share the same dreams in the cold moonlight, to love each other, to fight, to laugh, to scream with love.”

Bleeuugh.

Three paragraphs later Zhou is struggling between Physics and Chemistry in choosing a cliché:

“There seemed to be a faint current flowing between us, a sort of chemical reaction.”

It takes Physics two pages to triumph:

“The moment our lips made contact I felt a sudden shock of static.”

I am filled with the horrible presentiment that lightning will strike in the next page or so when they get between the sheets. It is impossible to continue. Counting blades of grass on the lawn outside would be more entertaining.

The only interesting question here is how such utter drivel ever made it into print. The answer that occurs to me is that Zhou Weihui is not a writer but an entrepreneur. She must have figured out that fame and money were to be made by revealing the shocking facts that Shanghainese women no longer have bound feet but do have sexual feelings and like shopping. (Brand name dropping is a monotonous undercurrent of the first 23 pages; sex, indeed, seems to take its place alongside clothes, handbags, make-up, food and wine as just another consumer experience.) After the prudery of the Communist era it was a safe bet that there would a significant domestic market for more upfront treatment, no matter how inept and emotionally phoney, of matters of the heart (and other parts of the anatomy) and department store. International sales, meanwhile, were assisted considerably by the fact that the Chinese authorities, in a particularly stupid, plodding way, banned ‘Shanghai Baby’ and even reportedly burned a bunch of copies. This was such a gift to international publicists that I can’t help wondering whether Zhou was well connected enough to have bribed the censors to put the ban in place.

There are some great books to be written about social and cultural change in China, the pleasures, perils and pains of greater freedom, but this is not one of them. It reveals, I guess, what is doubtless true: that Chinese people can be as shallow and self-absorbed as people elsewhere; but so what? Perhaps, somewhere beyond page 23, the author discovers a somewhat richer moral universe; but I rather doubt it.

Nick Young
Kampala January 29, 2009