“The Dog” Paints Portrait of Modern China

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Jack Livings ’96 reveals contradictory landscape in meticulous strokes

The Dog bookcoverJack Livings ’96 is giving prizes away big time in the eight stories about today’s China in The Dog (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 229 pages, $25). With each story the reader enters a world of many pleasures: character, dialogue, collision, words that ring. Readers who are intimately familiar with China will be tickled to meet old acquaintances: the neighborhood danwei, the local political unit which gives permits to marry, travel, almost to die; the ’08 Olympics; a poker tournament in Macau; street-side barbershops; Beida and Capital Normal universities.

But one need not have been to China to embrace the wonders here—these are sentences and paragraphs to read and reread again. The payoff? Delight and wisdom. And relevance: in “The Heir,” the roughest story in the book, the underworld of the Uyghur ethnic minority grimly resonates with newspaper accounts of recent violent attacks in Ürümqi, capital of the Xinjiang region.

Two stories pry open this world before the readers’ eyes. “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” the longest story in the collection at almost 50 pages, relates the heroism of the workers who are charged with the honor of making Chairman Mao’s glass coffin in record time. At the conclusion, the chemistry of building the sarcophagus joins the embalming of Mao’s sacred corpse in a glorious explosion of language: each of the eight seams of the coffin “milled to a tolerance of two-tenths of a millimeter…joined with astronautical-grade silicone sealant, earthquake-resistant to a magnitude of 8.0…the Great Helmsman’s face is pink, hale, a countenance of peace and slumber, the result of careful embalming and tuned xenon lighting in fiber-optic tubes hidden along the inside of the coffin’s seams.”

The last in the collection is titled “Switchback.” Livings serves as a guide through zigzagging events, and the wisdom of the telling emerges to the reader. The plot seems simple. A cyclist is killed by a bus. The grief of the parents is moving, as they lift the body and carry it home in a blanket to the son’s bed; though poignant, no sentimentality is allowed in the sad tale. The driver may fail to avoid rolling over the dark stain of the man’s blood on the road, but the bus and its load of pilgrims make up the lost time on the backside of the mountain and, once the pass has been crested, the driver opens it up and lets it run.

Like the opening lines of the story, the concluding paragraph focuses on the bus and driver. He slowly primes the engine, prays, turns the key, presses the starter—and the bus becomes a living, groaning creature. This is far more than mere realism, though the picture is visually precise. The struggles of China and her pilgrims are the vast pageant behind one family’s tragedy. What a resonant ending to the collection! 

With The Dog—a striking debut—Livings captures the tensions of a society in flux with master strokes of language, both broad and fine, that recall Chinese calligraphy.

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About Author

Gill Holland

Gill Holland is professor emeritus of English, Davidson College, and author of four works of poetry. Holland, who lived and taught in China, has published translations of Chinese poetry into English.

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