Pantheon: 644 pp, $29.95
Yu Hua's "Brothers" begins with two toilets. The novel's first scene transpires atop the gold-plated toilet seat on which Li Guang -- better known as Baldy Li, but also as Little Butt-peeper, the King of Butts, Little Landlord, Factory Director Li, Scrap Collector Li, the Scrap King of Liu, President Li and eventually Boss Li -- sits as he dreams of booking a flight on a Russian rocket and drifting away through space. His fantasy crumbles when he chokes up at the realization that he has "no family left down on Earth." Even his brother, "loyal, stubborn Song Gang," is gone.
Before the page is through, Yu has skipped back in time to another, far humbler toilet, the communal latrine that earned Baldy Li two of his earliest nicknames. At age 14, Baldy Li "was nabbed for peeping at women's bottoms in a public pit toilet," following in the ignominious footsteps of his father, who on the day of Baldy Li's birth fell and drowned in a pool of excrement while likewise attempting to sneak a peek. For the remaining 600-odd pages, Yu will wrestle with these two toilets and the two Chinas they represent -- one past and one present, one humble and one grand, both, in Yu's waggish but merciless depiction, equally tragic and equally ridiculous.
"Brothers" was an instant hit in China, selling more than 1 million copies since the release of its first volume there in 2005. (In English, the two volumes have been combined into a single text.) Last year, the book made the short list for the Man Asian Literary Prize. At home, though, critics have judged "Brothers" harshly, condemning the novel as lowbrow and crass.
The criticism is not unfounded. "Brothers" is unapologetically crude and not just in its humor, which rarely veers far from the outhouse or the bedroom. In broad outline, the novel's plot -- two orphaned brothers, sworn to protect each other, are divided by history and their love for the beautiful Lin Hong -- is simplistic and soap-operatic. It is even less sophisticated in the details. Yu pushes every scene to extremes of sentimentality, or of Rabelaisian grotesquerie or, when he can, both. It's not enough for Song Fanping, Song Gang's saintly father (who is also Baldy Li's stepfather) to be cruelly beaten, impaled with a broken bat and left dead in the street for his young children to weep over: The only coffin the boys' mother can afford is too short for the body, so the family has to sit by while the coffin-makers break Song Fanping's legs to cram them in. "Let's start smashing!" one worker yells.
With the exception of his protagonists, Yu's characterization is purposefully flat. Baldy Li's co-workers are described as "two cripples, three idiots, four blind men, and five deaf men" -- though after encountering Lin Hong, the idiots are later subdivided into "the love-crazed idiot" and "the two non-infatuated idiot minions." Yu's language, deftly translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas, is anything but lyrical. Even his metaphors are crude: "they couldn't help laughing, happier than a pair of toads feasting on the succulent flesh of a swan."
I'm not complaining. Despite a few slow stretches, "Brothers" is a consistently and terrifically funny read. What may have irked Yu's Chinese critics more than the fart jokes or any formal heavy-handedness is the unremitting critique of contemporary Chinese life. For all its populism, "Brothers" is no light entertainment but a caustic and painful satire from which almost nothing emerges unscathed.
Beneath the slapstick, "Brothers" is about two very different worlds, both in China, that improbably enough succeeded one another during the same long century. The first is the China of Yu's protagonists' childhood. A few years before the infamous butt-peeping incident, Baldy Li, not yet 8, has developed a precocious autoerotic fixation with wooden benches and telephone poles. When Mao's Cultural Revolution hits Liu Town, the streets fill with red banners and people "singing and barking like a pack of dogs, yelling revolutionary slogans." Young Baldy Li seizes "the opportunity to violate each of the town's wooden electrical poles several times over."
Predictably, the fun doesn't last. Song Fanping's father, it turns out, was a landowner, which makes Song Fanping, despite his current poverty, a "class enemy." He is beaten, spit upon and forced to wear a dunce cap. Things get worse. Baldy Li grows up "as adrift and aimless as a leaf floating down the river and as pitiful as a piece of scrap paper blowing in the wind."
At the very end of the first section, the two brothers sneak into a locked room rumored to contain "all the items confiscated during the early days of the Cultural Revolution . . . books, paintings, toys, stuff that you couldn't even imagine." But everything has already been looted. All they can find is one strange, unidentifiable item, which they decide must be some kind of toy. It's a single red high-heeled shoe. The scene works as a neat transition to the book's second part, which tracks the breakneck rise of Chinese capitalism. The storehouse of cultural memory has been ransacked. All that's left is this near-useless fetish object, embodying eros, foreignness, luxury, desires that can't be sated.
Late 20th century capitalism, in Yu's description, is more corrupt and just as grotesque in its excesses as the Maoist austerity it replaces. Baldy Li amasses his first fortune selling garbage (call it "scrap"). He expands to clothing, restaurants, real estate, everything that can be bought or sold. He demolishes the village of his youth, redeveloping it for profit, "like a B-52 bomber, carpet-bombing the formerly beautiful town." Meanwhile Song Gang, alienated from his more fortunate brother, loses his government factory job, ruins his health doing menial labor and joins the ranks of China's uprooted migrant workers, chasing his lost dignity in a series of progressively more demeaning adventures. Whenever it seems things can't get worse, they find a way.
The only nostalgia Yu allows himself is for the much-frayed bond that links the two brothers (who, as much as the two toilets, stand in for China's empty present and its castoff past) and for a fleeting sexual purity that Baldy Li is eager to regain. Yu harks back to the innocence of Baldy Li's leering youth: "Nowadays the world is filled with women's bare butts shaking hither and thither," he writes, but it "used to be that women's bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldn't trade for gold or silver or pearls."
At the turn of the millennium, Baldy Li, now a mogul hungry for new thrills, stages a beauty pageant for virgins. Three thousand descend on Liu Town. Baldy Li's hopes are foiled. None of them are virgins. The "itinerant charlatan" Wandering Zhou does a brisk business in artificial hymen sales, hawking both a cheap domestic model and "imported Joan of Arc ones" at three times the price. The runner-up buys the Joan of Arcs in bulk, bedding Baldy Li and all of the judges. The winner, it turns out, has a 2-year-old kid, but, she insists, "spiritually, she would always be a virgin."
Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."