by ROSE LAMBERT-SLUDER
Michael X. Wang, Further News of Defeat (Autumn House Press, 2020), pp. 192.
This review was originally published in the Winter 2021 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
“Today is a glorious day for this village,” an Imperial Japanese officer announces to a quiet group of villagers in north China. It is 1938 in Xinchun, and the villagers know he’s lying. The army will take “volunteers to serve in its prosperous coal mine,” he says, giving them “a chance the Kuomintang never gave you: a chance to leave this village.”
These lines capture the deceptions that interest Michael X. Wang in his debut short story collection, the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Fiction Contest Further News of Defeat. To “volunteer” in the coal mines means to be enslaved; to “leave” one’s village can mean danger and dislocation from community—even leaving when by choice.
The collection moves between eras, spanning most of the 20th century to today. Its geographical heart is Xinchun, a fictional mountain village in China that has endured cholera, invasion, fraud, and hunger. In each story, rural China grates against urbanization. Tradition grates against technology, and poverty grates against new wealth.
Wang’s stories about a shifting modern China are never comfortable. They scratch like burlap, or like what I imagine empty sorghum sacks—which one character uses as luggage—feel like. They are unsettling, often brutal, sometimes tender, always plainspoken. Violence, including sexual violence, runs through them as an undercurrent. Yet as a storyteller, Wang’s sensitivity is evident. Wang, who was born in the small coal-mining village of Fenyang in Shanxi Province and immigrated to the U.S. as a child, attends to the book’s inquiries with heart.
In each story, a threat encroaches. Threats range from pressing to more abstract: Japanese troops, new drilling tech, modern medicine, time, death, garbage. Here I mean literal garbage—watermelon rinds and spoiled rice encroach on one family’s house, as it becomes subsumed by a landfill. Plastic bags. Pork blood. In fact, it’s the tone of this garbage—this indifferent refuse of a wrenching world—that shades Wang’s book to me. It’s not that the writing is raw (his prose is very controlled), but that he renders an unpretty world with such a frank, unsentimental lens, with no intent to shock exactly, but to probe at how people navigate inhospitable systems while trying to improve their station in life.
Wang’s success lies partly in scale: “A Minor Revolution” runs along the edge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre—or, rather, the unnerving hours leading up to it. But its gaze isn’t on the front lines—instead, it’s on Shen, a young mother with urgent needs beyond Chinese democracy. One need: that her professor husband, who has been jailed by the state, end his long hunger strike. In her home village, Shen survived on “water and wood bark;” she knows the danger of starvation. She’s illiterate, smart, and kind, and also skeptical of the activists and their principles, their claims that: “‘Our voices have to be heard,’ which sounded ridiculous to her. Wasn’t it apparent that everyone could hear them already?” Shen has plenty of agency, which she uses to stage a cunning revolt of her own against her husband and his expectations.
The title story is also concerned with political abuse, but it takes more narrative risk, which pays off stunningly. “Further News of Defeat” takes place on the heels of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese Imperial Army soldiers raped and killed tens of thousands of citizens in Nanjing, China. In the story, Japanese troops occupy Xinchun, where a pigtailed girl named San develops a mixed rapport with a Japanese soldier she privately nicknames “Pointy.” Meanwhile the Japanese exploit the villagers’ labor until an act of rebellion leads to swiftly escalating violence. The story culminates in a terrifying scene involving a stone well, human hair, and bayonets, a scene now unshakable from my mind.
Wang’s very best stories are the bolder and more speculative ones that, like “Further News,” give space to mystery. Folklore and myth imbue “The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver on the Suzhou River,” which follows Mr. Yang, an enigmatic tugboat driver who lugs garbage up and down the polluted Suzhou River in Shanghai. The structure—an exchange between an unknown interviewer and a ghostly interviewee—is fantastic. It opens:
“—Why was he a hero?
After fishing a woman’s hand out of Suzhou River, he helped to solve a murder case.
––Wait. How did he find the hand?
He was driving his tugboat upriver, pulling a barge full of garbage. It was raining that day and he was playing with his Captain America, Wolverine, and Spiderman toys…He fished [the hand] out and placed it beside the steering wheel. For the next week, he examined it thoroughly…At the end of the week, he wrapped the hand in newspaper and turned it over to the police.”
We learn little about the murder, and only fragments about Mr. Yang, who seems at turns menacing and good-hearted. The story feels uncrackable, like there’s a strange geode crystal in the middle that we can’t get to. And should we really try? Part of the pleasure of this story is, for me, the sense that it resists easy interpretation.
“New Work in New China” brings a different texture to the collection, one of silk robes and antique calligraphy. This dark story imagines the Communist state wiped out by an anachronistic Imperial autocracy, in which the Tibetan emperor fills his palace with one concubine from each of China’s 31 provinces. The emperor treats these concubines “equally” by sleeping with (raping?) a different one each night of the month. (Not to worry—he has “declared that in the months when there are only thirty days, he will not sleep with Manchuria.”) The concubines serve as “a sort of sexual senate” wherein each member can “propose laws…[and] encourage pardons” on her nights with the emperor. It’s blackly funny and also horrific. This system “is democracy,” insists one gong-gong, the compulsorily castrated men who serve in the palace. This gong-gong“considers his current station in New China to be most fortunate”—all the gong-gongs do.
In “New Work in New China,” Wang uses a more pronounced style (and the story shines for it), but in general, Wang’s prose is restrained. As a reader, this challenged me. What I gravitate toward in fiction––metaphor, vivid prose, and intimacy with a character’s consciousness––isn’t what Wang offers. Psychic exploration, in particular, is clearly not Wang’s project. At times, the stylistic restraint can read as too tidy, or perhaps avoidant of emotional realities. But the restraint also serves the text: the author doesn’t moralize or even educate his (likely) American audiences. And his controlled prose can brilliantly work to keep us in a calm equilibrium before jolting us to alarm, as in the powerful line, “The deaths of babies were common in the countryside, and parents gave them ugly nicknames like Pig Feces and Foot Fungus and Rotten Rice.”
By and large, I found Further News of Defeat a book to be taken on its own terms. Images—what writers Mark Rose and David Jauss call “liaisons”—drift across stories, gently linking them. Some drift lightly like particulate matter. Needles and thread. Sorghum fields. Red lanterns and moons. Other images land with a bang—firecrackers, for instance, which flare up in many scenes. A moss-covered well. And rifles. Rifles especially stand out. The weaponry points to questions that I think undergird Further News of Defeat. Questions of political cruelty, personal desperation, ambition, and violence. What abuses would a person commit to advance his goals, what outright cruelty? What abuses would states commit? History seems to voice the answer: all abuses are possible. All expressions. All kinds. The more practical question is, who will be subjected to cruelty and neglect? Who will evade it? Who will be implicated in the process?
As I read Further News of Defeat, my mind kept traveling back to the U.S.: Michael X. Wang’s work feels of this political moment, though it gazes mostly backward. In the U.S., the promise of equity often feels hollow. Progress feels like a spun-sugar notion that disintegrates in our hands. I don’t mean to suggest Wang’s book should be refracted through an American political lens—not at all. To advise that would devalue the work. But Further News does invite self-examination. It asks that we not toss Xinchun and rural China into the bin of elsewhere. It asks us to see our country’s dysfunctions, to see its pork blood and other garbage, and to consider how we might find likeness in Xinchun, a complex place whose citizens have to navigate inequity as if survival is not a given for everyone. Which, of course, it isn’t.