When seasoned journalists turn to fiction, I often think "uh oh, here comes trouble." We don't note this enough, but journalists do indeed have a leg up, the potential to show up writers without the benefit of extensive reporting. After all, fiction — as craft lessons teach us — requires a heightened sense of observance. It is a famously difficult lesson to learn.
Land of Big Numbers, the debut story collection from Te-Ping Chen — a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and formerly a correspondent for the Journal in Beijing and Hong Kong — is as brilliant an instance of a journalist's keen eye manifesting in luminous fiction as one can find. Over ten stories, largely set in China, Chen evinces a capacity to sweep with astonishing ease from individuals to communities, from the settled middle-class to rural poverty, from blazing dissidents to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) loyalists.
The challenge often with fiction that tries to do this much is that it's easy for the reader to pick up what feels inorganic, or less lived-in and fully observed. Chen, however, seems to have no problem at all bridging the divides of class, gender, and ideology. What else can explain this unlikely page-turner of a book, except her already envious career as an embedded journalist, reporting on everything from the Chinese criminal justice system to tech companies.
The people at the heart of the stories are often comedic strivers, despite how differently Chen deploys them with regards to politics. In "Flying Machine," we meet Cao Cao, a village inventor of fanciful machines who, year after year, applies to be a Party member — always in vain:
On each occasion, the village's party secretary, Jiang, a muskrat-faced man in a black windbreaker, rejected him kindly but firmly ... [The party] wanted brains, it wanted talent, it wanted (this was implied but not spoken) wealth.
Cao Cao makes a robot out of scrap parts, a robot that can slice noodles. The village gathers, and the party secretary praises the amazing robot slicing dough into strips that Cao Cao's wife Anning then cooks and serves. But people soon lose interest in the noodle robot, and Cao Cao's party membership is again denied. A decade later, he starts building an airplane. The story sits comfortably in this comic mode — the villagers are mostly amused by Cao Cao's eccentricity — but his consuming need to ingratiate himself with the party, to finally join it is the obvious drive. This is hardly subtext. It just is. It is the search for social mobility, in an unknown village somewhere in China.
There is something unified about how Chen renders the Chinese Communist Party at different angles: As a regime that should be far more familiar to outsiders than it is. Mostly this occurs with a fair amount of disinterest in the question of what her (presumably) American readers think of the Party in the first place. It's an impossible, insoluble question to answer — we cannot know how aware these readers are of the CCP and its history.
Perhaps they know enough to understand the first story, "Lulu." Lulu is a twin, a dazzingly intelligent girl who leaves her brother, the narrator, behind in the dust as she effortlessly earns a place at a university in the capital ("a bus and a train and a plane ride away"). But while she's away, her brother spots her on social media decrying police violence, the state, extra-judicial killings. Lulu's posts go viral. He worries; Lulu's fierce activist streak is dangerous. The first time she is arrested, she serves six days. The second time, three years. Her work — oblique as it is — does not abate. As life moves on for her family, Lulu remains in that interstitial space of inevitable detention; the story ends with a ten-year sentence. I finished reading and felt dissatisfied. It was incomplete, after all.
But where else can such a story end? Did I, as a reader, expect a tale more dank? Did I expect to be transported to a gulag? Why did I expect more brutality? What if the banality of the ending is factual? I wonder if this is perhaps the big gambit Chen pulls off. She renders this China so near at hand as to make a reader doubt their settled notions of it. Couldn't "Lulu" have been set in the United States, after all? Of course it could. Most Americans, after all, seem to be recognizing just now how many Black activists past and present — much like the long-incarcerated Black Panthers — have been swept away by the criminal justice system. Lulu's crimes are oblique in the sense that one can't put a fine point on their smallness or bigness, but the broad strokes are obvious: This is the cost of sedition, no matter where you are.
The title story makes this case just as well as any other about the closeness of contemporary China to Western or American culture. Middle-class Zhu-Feng still lives at home. He worries: "What girl would ever want to marry him, with his joke of a salary, no car, no prospect of a place of his own?" He gets a tip about an investment opportunity in a company called Shandong Abundant Sanitation Ltd., and with a little help from a friend, Zhu-Feng enters a brave new world of the stock exchange. The story, in a book releasing this week, is eerily reminiscent of the GameStop saga. "Swagger, swagger get the cash... Swagger, swagger make a stake," Zhu-Feng chants to himself. His story spins out as an outside spectator might assume it would for the people behind the avatars on r/WallStreetBets, and then goes even further: the grand spectacle of promise and wealth with a dash of Westworld-style phantasmagoria. A brief scene shows a crackdown on a protest by farmers, immediately redolent of India today.
And that's the most astonishing thing about Chen's writing. Pretty much everything about Land of Big Numbers is specific and keen yet somehow generalizable. These stories could appear as news right now, at any moment. They could be deeply reported longform features, even some of the magical realism detours Chen makes, such as a story about a life-changing, mind-bending new fruit. The broad strokes of it all, truly, could happen anywhere — maybe right where you are. It is a gift to read stories like this. Almost any one of them is worth the price of admission.
Thank goodness for journalists like Chen, who even with fiction can teach us so much. The world being where it is, they're at the frontlines more than anyone else, observing. Perhaps it would do literary writers some good to do some rigorous reporting. God knows we need it.
Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.