Book Review: “I Love Dollars”

I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China
Zhu Wen
Columbia University Press (2007)
ISBN: 0231136943

This is an anthology of six short stories written by Zhu Wen during the 90s. I’ll tell you right now that if you’re looking for a positive review, read any of the other reviews on the Internet.

I had high hopes for these stories going in. I wanted to read about the turbulence of China’s economic transformation set against the inevitable human costs. I wanted to see the choking pollution settling in layers of grime on the industrialized cities of the north and west. I wanted to hear the voices of the millions of displaced farmers as the clamoured for work at factory gates. I suppose holding preconceived notions is my fault.

What I got instead was six stories (of which I could only read about three-and-a-half, but due to boredom, nothing else) detailing the mundane minutiae of the main character’s life. (We’ll assume that this main character is the author himself.)

These stories don’t go anywhere. Normally, you expect there to be some progress, whether it be in the character’s development or the events themselves, but that doesn’t happen. What you get instead are the aforementioned minutiae set against the ramblings of Zhu’s aimless thoughts.

Take the second story, “A Night at the Hospital”. For unknown reasons, Zhu volunteers to take the night watch over his girlfriend’s father as he recovers from a gall bladder operation. We are treated to an absurd sequence of scenes revolving around the poor father’s bodily functions. We get the feeling that Zhu feels caught up in the events, that he has no control over them. I can fully appreciate this as an metaphor of the way the average person caught up in China’s head-long rush to developed nation status must feel, but set against the backdrop of an old man’s need to pee makes the whole story feel disposable.

That’s my main complaint about these stories: they have no weight. After reading “I Love Dollars”, the eponymous first story, I’m left with a number of impressions: women as commodities, pursuit of money over development of interpersonal relationships, [insert other broad social theme], etc. etc. But that’s all they amount to. Zhu fails to make a lasting impression because we don’t know what his opinions of these issues are. We can guess he thinks they’re negative, but since his characters don’t make a judgment one way or another, we can’t be sure.

In the end, Zhu also fails to offer any solutions or ways out of the dilemmas that his characters face. They blithely surf along the waves of their misfortunes, with little reaction to unfortunate circumstances. Something bad happens, they react, and that’s it. His characters don’t learn from their encounters, nor does the reader.