The Dog by Jack Livings

Hardcover, 225 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (August 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

“An incredibly surprising and moving collection of stories set in China by a young American writer. Chekhovian in their vision and resonance.” —Mary Mount

Set against the dramatic backdrop of a transforming China, Jack Livings’ stories are impeccably researched and elegantly imagined, showing a delicate mastery of form. The Dog traces the fault lines of a country facing the struggles of modernisation and impending prosperity. A master storyteller, Livings gives shape to faces in the crowd with sparse, penetrating prose, returning to the motif of individuals confronted by events beyond their control.

--------

After Li Yan put the baby down, she joined her husband at the rough table. He was reading People’s Daily in the brown light of a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Li Yan opened her English textbook and began to read a dialogue. It was still early but she was worn out and had trouble focusing on the words.

Pretty soon she looked up and said, “Chen Wei, do you want some tea?”

From behind the paper he said no.

“Okay. It’s no trouble. I’ll make you some anyway.”

“Fine,” he said. “Just not too many leaves.”

Li Yan filled the electric kettle and turned it on. The light buzzed and the room took on a subterranean murk. Chen Wei rattled his paper at her.

“Hello there,” she said. The paper rose again. She unwrapped the tea package and put leaves in a cup for herself, then sprinkled some in another cup for her husband. She thought for a moment about taking a dumpling back to the table for him, then decided against it. She’d sworn never to stuff him the way his mother had. No wonder he didn’t like to eat.

It was dusk, warm out, and street noise came in through the open doorway. Occasionally a leaf or a scrap of paper would drift across the threshold. Next door, pensioners slapped their chess pieces on the board outside Old Feng’s house. They could get rowdy, sometimes playing until dawn when they had enough to drink, and then Old Feng would sing opera in a warbling voice.

Old Feng’s wife was head of the neighbourhood committee, but no one had the courage to confront her about the noise. She was paranoid and sharp-tongued, especially when it came to defending Old Feng. No one crossed her. In a way, Li Yan admired the woman’s harsh reputation. She’d seen some things in her life.

“Hope they don’t wake up the baby tonight,” Li Yan said.

“What am I supposed to do about it?” Chen Wei said. He adjusted his reading glasses. He kept them low on his nose and peered over the top of the lenses because his vision was fine. Li Yan made him wear them.

“Just thinking out loud,” she said. She turned off the kettle. The light bulb above Chen Wei’s head flickered, burned intensely yellow for a moment, then resigned itself to a dingy glow. She carried the teacups to the table and set one in front of the newspaper.

“If you were more of a chess player, you might have some pull with them,” she said.

“You know, not everything you think is worth saying out loud,” he said.

“Very wise,” she said.

She went back to her dialogue, sounding out the words in a whisper1. The book was filled with ink drawings of Alex and Mary, a stylish young American couple. Mary always wore high heels and a tweedy skirt, and Alex a dark blazer, unless they were at the beach or an embassy ball. They bore no resemblance to Li Yan’s English teacher, an American college student who sometimes touched his students on the shoulder and wore the same flannel shirt and dirty blue jeans every week.

He laughed at his own jokes.

--------

[1] While English is taught at nearly every school in China and also has massive uptake among adults, there is a growing backlash against learning the language, with plans from the Ministry of Education to lower the points value for English for final and university entry exams.

  • The Dog