In which the titular character is a gay American man of Chinese descent living in a future post-collapse/revolution US that has become a state-capitalist satellite of the hegemonic People's Republic of China, starting off as a construction foreman and ending up as a kind of super-architect. I just spoiled the entire plot of this book for you, but if you're a plot-centric person this won't appeal to you anyway. This is getting a little too close to the dreaded bildungsroman for my taste, but McHugh manages to reign that in to an acceptable degree by using this book as a subversion of the usual dystopic bildungsroman in that Zhang, although he grows as a person, is never anything more than a pretty typical guy - he never overthrows or even challenges the system (outside of his participation in the outlawed gay community), or does anything much outstanding or extraordinary. McHugh's inversion of the CHOSEN ONE trope goes so far as to even decentralize Zhang from his own narrative. The book is divided into 9(ish?) sections, with the odd chapters following Zhang and the even ones focusing on other characters very tangentially related to him - these other characters, it might go without saying, being just as believable and unexceptional as Zhang himself.
The novel's message is almost anarchistic in its critique of bureaucracy and emphasis on day-to-day life, but I think this in combination with the inversion of genre/tropes renders the setting vague and unbelievable. Does McHugh intend this the way I read it, as a failed socialist revolution that has faltered and sputtered down into yet another form of state capitalism ("the stranglehold of Stalinism, the form of the counter-revolution in our day, the absolute opposite of the proletarian revolution"
)? Off-handed references are made throughout to "free-market zones" administered over by the statist bureaucracy, Zhang interns and interviews with various corporations, and the happy ending of the book is his creation of an independent business. Surely we aren't supposed to understand this as an actual communist worker's state? I don't know. Clearly, I am more sympathetic with a reading of this book in the tradition of 1984
as a critique of power systems in general moreso than any particular political ideology.
page 6: "I don't believe in socialism but I don't believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort."
and again on page 44: "There is a brilliant light inside of me. It is not Christ, it is not Mao Zedong. I do not know what it is. I am Zhang, alone with my light, and in that light I think for a moment that I am free.
But I am only free in small places. Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks."
And yet, having brought up 1984
, with all of its impressive gloom and hopelessness, I have to say that with the exception of Zhang's sexuality, none of the characters here face many hardships (with the exception of one chapter that was actually kind of physically difficult for me to read, but that had nothing to do with the larger setting except inasmuch as it shows that things operate pretty much the same way there as they do here) - the bureaucracy seems to be the worst part of this "dystopia." Again, satire of anti-communist individualist genre pieces or just misstep on McHugh's part? Either way, it's all a little too optimistic for me - the problems here revolve mostly around alienation and dehumanization, with Zhang bringing an appropriately disengaged somnambulant narration to the table.