REVIEW: “State of Trance” by Chen Qiufan

Review of Chen Qiufan, Josh Stenberg (trans.), “State of Trance”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 147-160 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The anthology closed with a bang, with this creepy futuristic science fiction story. Told in second-person (not normally my favorite), it quickly drew me in and forced me to wander through Shanghai “on the last day of the Anthropocene” (p. 151), to partake in a “world on the cups of disintegration” (p. 157). What I really enjoyed about this story was that not only was it science fiction in content, it was also science fiction in construction: Parts of the story were automatically generated by AI programmes “trained on deep learning of the author’s style, and […] not thereafter been subject to human editing” (p. 160). Wonderfully bizarre, and an excellent concluding piece.

(Originally published in Fiction World, 2018.)

REVIEW: “Suzhou River” by Cai Jun

Review of Cai Jun, Frances Nichol (trans.), “Suzhou River”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 131-146 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

C’s trip down the Suzhou River in his white steel bathtub is one of the more speculative stories in the anthology. His journey is layered with surrealism and dreams within dreams, leaving the reader uncertain, at the end, whether he managed to meet up with his beloved Z or not.

(Originally published in The Lover’s Head, 2003.)

REVIEW: “Transparency” by Xiao Bai

Review of Xiao Bai, Katherine Tse (trans.), “Transparency”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 123-129 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Xiaotong is a PI whose been hired by a woman named Malin to track her husband and send her updates on his life. What is the secret he has been hiding from her? Who is Xiaohua, Malin’s best friend or the woman her husband is seeing behind her back? None of the answers Xiaotong finds are what you’d expect, or what they seem in this quick little mystery story.

(Originally published in Shanghai Literature, 2019).

REVIEW: “The Lost” by Fu Yuehui

Review of Fu Yuehui, Carson Ramsdell (trans.), “The Lost”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 95-122 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a strange, wondrous story, that can be read on many levels. On the one hand, it’s a simple interrogation of our modern society’s reliance on our technology, tapping into the fear that pretty much all of us probably have, of what it would be like if we lost our cell phone.

On the other hand, there’s a weird layer of fantasy overlying everything, the parts of the story where it’s not clear if they’re really happening or not. Despite being one of the longer stories in the anthology, this was one of the most gripping; it sucked me in and kept me interested from the opening paragraphs right up to the bizarre and unexpected ending.

(First published in October, 2012).

REVIEW: “The Story of Ah-Ming” by Wang Zhanhei

Review of Wang Zhanhei, Christopher MacDonald (trans.), “The Story of Ah-Ming”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 79-94 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Ah-Ming is an unlikely character for a story to center around — “the old lady who lived in a lock-up garage at the end of the estate” (p. 81) who trawls through the trash collecting bottles and cans to trade for money and any other bit of rubbish that one day might be useful. Everyone in the neighborhood had witnessed her slow decline over recent years; but no one expected her to one day be discovered in the trash bins.

The discovery of Ah-Ming in the bin both opens and closes this strange story. I found it a strange juxtaposition of very deftly put together and almost entirely lacking in sympathy, whether on the part of the characters, the reader, or, dare I say it, the author. Strange indeed.

(Originally published in One, 2016).

REVIEW: “The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng

Review of Shen Dacheng, Jack Hargreaves (trans.), “The Novelist in the Attic”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 61-77 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story was the one that intrigued me the most when I read a one-sentence blurb of it on the back. I thought we’d find out, at the start, how the novelist gets into the attic, but the story actually opens on him when he’s already been up there for years.

Part of the premise of the story is extremely attractive to any writer — a quiet space where one can write uninterrupted, without any cares of housekeeping. But the flip side of it — a writer effectively squatting in his publisher’s attic, toiling away without ever producing his third book — is kind of chilling. For awhile, the reader seems to suffocate along with the writer, until one day the publishing house’s previous director retires and a new, reforming, one takes over. The abrupt change shocks the entire system, including the author, and the story takes a sudden, dramatic twist.

The one thing that struck me about this story is how indistinct it was, in the sense that it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. Only the references to the wutong trees outside the building locate the story in any particular place.

(First published in The Ones in Remembrance, 2017).

REVIEW: “Woman Dancing Under Stars” by Teng Xiaolan

Review of Teng Xiaolan, Yu Yan Chen (trans.), “Woman Dancing Under Stars”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 39-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A chance encounter between the narrator and Zhuge Wei leads to an unlikely friendship between the young newlywed and the old widow.

The story both reinforces and questions stereotypes of women, but the ways in which the women cannot escape their gender roles makes the entire story sad, rather than free, in the end.

But it came with four informative footnotes, two of which taught me vocabulary and one of which taught me some important cultural info (the fourth was about tea), always appreciated!

(First published in Zhong Shan, 2010).

REVIEW: “Bengal Tiger” by Xia Shang

Review of Xia Shang, Lee Anderson (trans.), “Snow”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 23-38 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The families of Chang Jing and Li Dabing have been feuding for years now. When their feud gets passed onto their sons, Rocky and Chao, both families need to face up to the claim at the root of it all: That the Chang family owes the Li family a life. Whose life, and why?

The story jumps back and forth between Jing and his son, between the present and the past, as it attempts to unweave the mystery. But at the very end, I came with feeling that I should have figured out who it was that had died, and how, but I didn’t. This might be a story that improves upon rereading; but it might also be one where something crucial has been lost in translation.

But kudos to the informative footnotes, which Comma Press’s books often have, and which I love!

(First published in People’s Literature, 2001.)

REVIEW: “Snow” by Chen Danyan

Review of Chen Danyan, Paul Harris (trans.), “Snow”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 9-22 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Another story that is not particularly speculative/SFF in nature, Danyan’s tale follows Zheng Ling one New Year’s morning as she navigates not only a trepidatious visit to her mother, but also a growing realisation that she is inhabiting the type of life that she pities in others.

It’s a quiet, not especially happy story, with a weight that makes everything feel like it’s blanketed in the titular snow. Little scenes are sketched here and there with great clarity, and while it may not be the sort of story that I ordinarily enjoy, I definitely enjoyed the writing (so kudos to the translator, whom I can only assume did an excellent job.)

(Originally published in Shanghai Literature, 2010).

REVIEW: “Ah Fang’s Lamp” by Wang Anyi

Review of Wang Anyi, Helen Wang (trans.), “Ah Fang’s Lamp”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 1-8 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Ah Fang hangs her lamp outside her door, to sell fruits and vegetables to passers-by, changing the entire life of the street, in the eyes of the unnamed narrator who walks the street daily and weaves their “own beautiful fairy tale, which, on grey or rainy days, inspires [them] not to be disheartened” (p. 8).

The story itself doesn’t have any speculative elements to it, but it was full of finely crafted details that made me get a real sense of the space and the place, something I struggle with sometimes, due to mild aphantasia. Normally I gloss over a lot of written description, but here, I really felt like a few well-placed words conjured up vivid pictures.

(First published in People’s Daily Overseas Edition, 2018.)