Stories set in China convey human complexities

“The Dog: Stories” by Jack Livings (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 226 pages, $25)

All eight stories in Livings’ debut collection are set in China, from the era of Mao’s cultural revolution to today. And while the setting is different from our own experience, his characters betray the complexities and contradictions that humans display everywhere.

In the title story, Li Yan learns that her husband, Chen Wei, has joined his cousin Zheng in purchasing a dog for racing. But the government is cracking down on dog racing, which is illegal, so Chen Wei must get rid of the dog.

When Zheng moves to kill the dog with a knife so they can eat it, Li Yan stands between them. Chen Wei interferes and strikes Zheng, who is twice his size, and “it seemed to Li Yan that the rotation of the earth had locked, that the natural world was pinned like a butterfly to a cardboard frame.”

Livings’ characters are not often strong or moral, but they tend to be survivors in a world where many do not survive.

In “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” Ning, a long-time reporter for a newspaper, is bitter about his friend Li Pai being honored on his retirement. He’s bitter about the young reporters who steal his stories and post them online. He’s unfriendly to everyone, and no one, except Li Pai, likes him. Later, we learn that he is living with lies, that he survived the government’s crackdown after the Tiananmen Square protests by telling his “inquisitors whatever they wanted to know.” His bitterness seems to stem from a self-hatred. But he continues to do what he must to survive.

In the collection’s longest story, “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” Chairman Mao has died, and the government orders the Glass Institute to build a crystal sarcophagus to hold the revered leader’s corpse. They are to have it ready in 10 months.

Zhou Yuqing protests that this is physically impossible. But arguing is futile. “The Party outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic. This knowledge was as essential to those in the room as the marrow in their bones. The Party was their water, their food, their thoughts.”

Zhou compares it to being “directed to transform a pile of flour into a baked loaf of bread, and he’d been given two minutes to do it.”

The story goes on in great detail – enough to try a reader’s patience – about the workers’ harrowing schedule and dedication. At the same time, it explores Zhou’s personal life during this stressful time. His wife dies from cancer. When he scatters her ashes, they “swirled out and lay down on the choppy water where as a girl she’d died from the gunwales of her father’s fishing boat.”

This blending of the political and social climate with characters’ personal lives and feelings is part of Livings’ remarkable achievement in this book.

He also has some lovely descriptions. One character is stooped, “his posture the apostrophe’s hook and bell.” A 10-year-old thief living on the streets is “wastewater wrung from the sponge of the world.”

Livings is an editor at Time Inc. who taught English in China and lived there as an undergraduate. He does not write as a sociologist but as a storyteller who captures the absurdities of his characters’ lives in a China undergoing great change.

While the setting may feel exotic, the struggles of his characters to survive and achieve dignity feel familiar. Even when they exhibit pettiness or cruelty, we recognize their humanity.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.