Review: The comforts of oppression, in a journalist’s wildly inventive fiction

Te-Ping Chen, right, author of the short story collection "Land of Big Numbers," in Chengdu, China in 2011.
Te-Ping Chen, right, author of the short story collection “Land of Big Numbers,” in Chengdu, China in 2011.
(Benjamin Carlson)

On the Shelf

Land of Big Numbers

By Te-Ping Chen
Mariner: 256 pages, $16

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Cao Cao, a villager in rural China, wants to join the Communist Party. Each year, he summits the hills at first light, harvesting the tastiest apricots to give the local party boss, who has rejected his application every year. So Cao Cao tries a more ambitious gambit, assembling trash and spare parts from his neighbors into a working plane. He and his wife strap in tightly. The engine fires up. But the party boss is still unimpressed.

So goes “Flying Machine,” one story in a dazzling debut collection of stories by Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen, whose short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Tin House, Granta, Bomb and other publications. In a series of rich and varied portraits, mostly of life in China but including forays to Atlantic City, N.J., and Arizona, she unleashes a powerful and enticing new voice, at times as strange as the dark fairy tale master Carmen Maria Machado, at others as inventive as the absurdist king George Saunders — but always layered with the texture available to a foreign correspondent who has seen it all.

Story by story, in China and the U.S., Chen builds a world in which oppression and contentment coexist, not some awful near future but the bizarre here and now.

“Lulu,” which appeared in the New Yorker, is the most conclusive story in “Land of Big Numbers,” covering the downfall of a brilliant and headstrong young student (not always an auspicious combination in authoritarian China) from the point of view of her baffled brother, who prefers the simpler life of gaming.


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Recalling their childhood, he remembers how his twin sister used to recite the names of bones “in an eerie voice as I held a pillow over my head: sternum, tibia, floating rib.” He, meanwhile, “died repeatedly that semester,” but “amassed several hundred gold coins and was first made a warlock, then a mage.”

The action unfolds in the dreamy, roundabout manner of a Haruki Murakami story: Lulu proceeds smoothly to college, meets the man she wants to marry, begins posting obsessively about government abuses and then promptly goes to jail. “I envied her for a moment,” her brother thinks, “sitting there, looking so certain. When had I ever been so sure of anything?” Lulu is sanguine: “Don’t be upset, Big Brother,” she writes. “I just felt this was something I had to do.”

This is the China we’ve read about: turbulent, difficult, ordinary one moment and violently oppressive the next — a place you might go to jail for doing what you have to do. “[T]hey laid her on the ground and kicked and beat her,” her brother reports of Lulu’s second arrest. “They didn’t fracture any bones, but I picture her bones anyway, each individually absorbing every blow. Lulu would have known all of them by heart[.]”

"Land of Big Numbers," by Te-Ping Chen.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Knowledge, power, tough women, bad men. It’s a world reminiscent of the stories of Laura van den Berg — small interactions at the edges of an urban core, exuding empathy and magic but also darkness and madness.


“Hotline Girl” concerns a gentle woman working in a government helpline office, which Chen renders with a satiric edge. “She began typing, simultaneously pressing the button for Tell me more on four different windows.” In a Saunders-like burst, we witness our heroine trying to assist one caller in handling a corrupt judge, another in avoiding onerous taxes and a third in understanding why his pension is so meager.

And then, a bad boyfriend returns. He had hit her, had killed a cat — and now he’s back and disfigured. The story swerves when we learn the cause: a blast at a poorly regulated factory. Dig deeper and the state is never far from blame.

At its most elegant, a Chen story isn’t all an artful reimagining of a cool newspaper feature but instead something more imagistic and elemental, a reflection on how we all live, no matter where we live. The logic of her observations can be terrifying.

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There is virtuoso writing, which serves to sharpen her political allegories. The best case is the bonkers romp “New Fruit,” which imagines the arrival of a delightful, transportive new item at the grocery store. “What tasted to me like the look of freshly arranged sunflowers in a green vase might taste to you like the way your daughter’s tiny socked feet sounded romping down the hall,” Chen writes. One man claims a bite “tasted like I had just told a good joke and everyone was laughing.”

Of course, the fruit ultimately sours. “Most of us have heard by now that the government is supposedly developing a new variety .... They say it will be sweeter, that its trees will bear fruit in all seasons. Especially as the winter sets in, we are impatient to try it.” Seasons change, the government doesn’t: Its scary industrial power can be harnessed to build a multistory hospital in a week — and to manufacture consumer satisfaction in place of actual political agency.

The most disturbing story is set not in dystopic-trending China but in Atlantic City. In “On the Street Where You Live,” the narrator reflects from jail on his love for a strange woman who disappeared. Our dread builds as he recounts moving into her apartment, hoarding her unopened mail and then worse. “I fell into the habit of wandering the strip downtown, picking out women here and there, following them when they caught my eye, never to their front steps, never approaching them, nothing like that, but sometimes you see a girl by herself and simply wonder: Where is she going?” Another guy gets in the way and does not fare well. “We all spend our lives looking for someone,” he muses in his cell; “why should he be the one who gets to find her?”


The most memorable story, the one that crystalizes Chen’s theme, concerns a train that is running late — very late. Suddenly a few weeks have gone by and officials still won’t let travelers leave the station. “Passengers must exit at a different station from where they entered,” a guard tells them. “It’s in the rule book.” But there’s TV and carts of food and blankets and, really, why would you leave? What do you want “upstairs”? Perhaps the secret ingredient in Chen’s fusion of reporting chops and creative force is her core insight into human nature: that in the face of loneliness, unfairness, oppression, we rationalize; we cling to small comforts.

“They’re taking good care of us,” says one prisoner. “That’s not the point,” a bereft passenger says. “What is the point?” the prisoner retorts. You can probably guess what happens when the train finally arrives.

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Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”