Fiction embraces anthropology, opening a path into unfamiliar cultures. It discovers how history has transformed societies and peoples. At times, novels live at the level of anthropology: exposing the minutiae of manners and morals. At its best, fiction interprets, illuminates and weighs the value and the cost of how people choose to live.
Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui (Pocket books, 263 pages, $24) straddles the boundary between novel and anthropological document. Banned in China, a best seller in Tokyo, it reveals a Shanghai of drug-taking, black-clad hipsters whose noisy club life would shake Chairman Mao in his tomb. Androgyny has eclipsed even the gay culture.
Nikki, nicknamed Coco, for Mme. Chanel, natch, is a writer whose addicted boyfriend Tian Tian is impotent. No matter, she finds a German lover named Mark, bearing "a scent from another land." A Chinese Murakami, eyes westward, Coco favors Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, no Dream of the Red Chamber for her. She also knows that the profession of literature is already "totally passe."
Coco is a creature of Shanghai in its "second wave of westernisation," its people living in a "fin-de-siecle, post-colonial mindset." A new generation of Shanghai women has emerged: "well-educated, self-sufficient women," appearing in fiction for the first time.
Defiant of Stalinist puritanism, Hui enlists language as a tool of liberation: "the Shanghai winter is wet and disgusting, like a woman's period." The 21st century discovers love as a distant memory: "the more hopelessly in love you are," Coco says, "the more you get caught up in deceptions and murky nightmares." The "market economy" is a train whose "massive steel wheels never stop spinning for anyone"; it appears to have blown away all traditional values in China, not least family ties. Hui catches the rhythm of the new ruthlessness, brilliantly.
In Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress (Knopf, 208 pages, $28), Dai Sijie, a Chinese in exile in France, where this novel was a best seller, examines the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" of the late 1960s. Two boys, sons of professionals, are sent into the countryside. No matter that Luo's dentist father once "enjoyed the privilege of touching Mao's teeth." He must shovel excrement on a hillside. The narrator has brought a violin, but because of the "Great Helmsman's" hatred of intellectuals, he retitles his music: "Mozart Is Thinking Of Chairman Mao."
In this bitterly satiric dark comedy, the two boys discover in a nearby village a cohort named "Four Eyes," son of a poet, who brought from Beijing a suitcase filled with novels: Melville and Balzac, Rolland and The Count of Monte Cristo. The "little seamstress" is the tailor's daughter. Upon reading Balzac, she snips off her braid and escapes to the city, her life revolutionized by the air of freedom blowing through Western fiction of the 19th century.
Medieval Turkey emerges in My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf, 417 pages, $29.95) opening a world as rich as the illuminated manuscripts which form the premise of its plot. The rich group of narrators includes a dog upset that his portrait is being drawn on "cheap paper." The murderer contributes the view that "only imbeciles are innocent." Death wonders: "Can you draw a picture of Death without ever having seen a picture of Death?"
Art flourishes through its own ancestry, even as life is inexplicable without it. The heroine, Shekure, hobbled by Islam, describes the embrace of Black as it "might have been depicted by the master miniaturists of Herat." To win her, Black must tell her stories.
In My Name Is Red, commentary transcends plot and character, even as, compared to art, life palls: "Isn't lovemaking the best antidote to love?" the author himself seems to ask. His color is "Red," as one section is actually narrated by -- a color. In this tour de force, in this remarkably original work of fiction, galaxies open.
T. Coraghessan Boyle well deserves his reputation as a master storyteller. His dark, uncompromising stories scoff at the hope of transcendence. "Termination Dust," set in Alaska, begins After The Plague and Other Stories (Viking, 303 pages, $25.95). A gaggle of single women on tour ("hard-looking women, divorcees for sure, maybe even legal secretaries or lawyers into the bargain") come to the icy frontier in search of husbands. Bud, living off the VA and welfare, his feet having been amputated, is not the worst.
In "She Wasn't Soft" a marathon-runner meets her worst enemy at home. "Killing Babies" forces the reader to side with Philip, condemned to work at an abortion clinic, even when murder seems entirely logical.
In "Friendly Skies," a disgruntled passenger goes berserk with two coffee pots. The father of "Achates McNeil," a famous literary figure, pursues him to his hideout, a nondescript third-rate state university.