Other characters navigate this sea change with similar bewilderment. The professor mistaken for "The Saboteur" thinks news articles about the end of the cultural revolution mean he can reason with the police (wrong!), while the bridegroom of the title story is hauled off to jail for so-called hooliganism rooted in "Western capitalism and bourgeois lifestyle"--that is, loving other men. "What a wonderful husband he could have been if he were not sick," his father-in-law thinks. In the story that deals most explicitly with the conflict between East and West, an American chain named Cowboy Chicken sets up shop in Muji City. The new order isn't that different from the old one, thinks one of the Chinese workers: "We nicknamed Mr. Shapiro 'Party Secretary,' because just like a Party boss anywhere he didn't do any work. The only difference was that he didn't organize political studies or demand we report to him our inner thoughts." In the end, as often happens, greed begets revolution--but whose greed? When the workers at Cowboy Chicken go on strike, jealous of one of their coworker's paychecks, they're replaced by an African American woman who teaches English at a nearby college and her students, who sing "We Shall Overcome" while they wipe tables.
But as in Jin's National Book Award-winning novel, Waiting, even the broadest political and cultural ironies are painted with an extraordinarily light-handed brush. Despite their apparent simplicity, these stories run deep; it's as if some 19th century master had wandered into our midst, writing prose whose unruffled surface recalls the virtues of the very long view. Like Chekhov, another great miniaturist and the writer he most resembles, Jin understands that humor is compassion, that a well-honed appreciation for the absurd is sometimes the best and most honest way to honor failed lives. While his characters attempt to balance the needs of the self and the demands of the state, we see less what is foreign to us than what is native to the human heart. --Mary Park