Book Review: Jack Livings - The Dog

By Aelred Doyle, February 23, 2015

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What if Chinese people spoke English? Not by learning it, but as their mother tongue. Imagine how much more foreigners would understand what was going on. We’d get the jokes, understand the online memes, read the same newspapers local people do.

And Chinese books wouldn’t be filtered through translation. Jack Livings is not Chinese, he’s American. The Dog is his first book – but every one of the eight stories is set in post-Mao China, and only one features a foreigner.

His choice to have his Chinese characters think and talk in modern American vernacular is striking, and completely successful. It has the effect of bringing the reader closer, and it frees Livings to just tell his stories rather than bear the burden of explanation.

Of course, this device isn’t worth a thing if the stories don’t hold up. They are outstanding, and striking in their energy. Livings wouldn’t have been able to write them if he hadn’t lived and taught here; but he’s an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate and has had stories published in places like the Paris Review and Pushcart Prize collections. This is a real writer, not an English teacher with literary pretensions.

The Dog isn’t a ‘foreigner examines modern China’ book – it’s not anthropology in the guise of art. Jack Livings is an American, so he writes in American. His characters thus become real to us, people we can identify with rather than telling epitomes of trends in Chinese culture.

In the funniest story, ‘An Event at Horizon Trading Company,’ a modern office gets caught up in an absurd conflict between practitioners of Hanfu who wear classical Chinese dress to show fealty to ancient culture, and a mocking faction who dress up as Red Guards in opposition. All this nonsense is about currying favour with bosses as job losses mount, and the narrator find himself caught in the middle only because he’s not sure which way the wind is blowing. 

The whole thing is ridiculous, but the way Livings writes means we can’t dismiss it as the kind of thing that only those krayzee Chinese could engage in – instead we think of Joseph Heller and Catch-22, or nowadays of Joshua Ferris or Sam Lipsyte. Human irrationality and cynicism know no borders.

In ‘The Crystal Sarcophagus,’ a team of glass workers is given the mission of building the sarcophagus that the body of Mao Zedong is to be displayed in, with crystal made to a specification that seems impossible.

Through accumulation of detail and lightly ratcheting suspense, we come to understand how this becomes a driving force in the men’s lives, in conditions that damage their health. We can question whether  such a sacrifice is necessary, but the story does not allow us to patronize these skilled men, or minimize their steadfastness.

Livings is superb with voice, which is the shortest route to empathy. ‘The Heir’ swings us through a Uyghur grandee, his disappointing son and PSB officer Fatty Bo, each understandable and cruel in their own way. ‘The Pocketbook,’ about a lonely American student in Beijing, puts us inside her head, but also lets