Alec Ash

Overall Rating: 1.3
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Author: Alec Ash
Title: Wish Lanterns. Young Lives in New China.
Time: 2008-2015
Destination: China
Length: several years
Type: journalism

When a book needs an Author’s Note

The story: this is not a travel book. It’s a book about China, a book that seemingly aspires to explain a part of China to its readers (think of Peter Hessler, John Pomfret, Evan Osnos, Liao Yiwu, or maybe Rob Gifford. The author of this book, AA, is a young Briton who lives in Beijing as a journalist/writer. He makes friends with several young Chinese (all of which are born around the end of the 1980s) and writes about their life stories. The book is about these life stories, hence the subtitle “Young Lives in New China”.

trying hard

It’s not a bad book. But it’s not great either. To me, it felt as if AA was simply trying a bit too hard. To give you an example, the book starts out with a Cast of Characters, in which the first persona is being described as a “military child, netizen, self-styled loser”, the second one is a “small-business owner, dreamer”, the third is an “official’s daughter, Ph.D., patriot”, the fourth a “country boy, internet gaming addict”, etc. etc.

I mean, as I was reading this I felt like the next thing that was about to happen would probably involve me having to memorize a sociology chart.

And AA, sadly, chose to write large parts of his book in this way. The characters basically feel like paper cuts of people, and it seems as though everyone is supposed to stand for something, everything is supposed to symbolize and mean something. Like in that episode where a young woman (the “small-business owner, dreamer”) gets into a discussion with a family member, and AA notes:

“She may have rolled her eyes whenever her mother brought it up, but filial piety is still deeply ingrained in China.”

Readers are different, I know. I understand that there might be people who want to have these things explained to them in easily digestible little bites. But I am not one of them.

In fact, it reminded me of some of Peter Hessler’s weaker moments, like in “Country Driving”, when he describes the transformation of a villager who gets new shoes and gradually upgrades his preferred brand of cigarettes until he walks and smokes like a city person.

Paper cuts. Symbols.

who cares about Warcraft or Ikea?

And there’s another problem: while AA’s writing style itself isn’t bad at all, he seems to really like to bombard his readers with mundane details. Like when he talks about a computer game called “World of Warcraft” and we have to read paragraph after paragraph filled with names and places from this game. Or when he talks about Ikea. It made me tired.

due explanation

Finally, I do not like forewords and afterwords in books. It seems to me that authors should try to say everything they want to say within the confines of their story.

For example, let’s say you write a totally awesome book and your first sentence is “Today, Maman died”. I want to start reading right there, not with some kind of additional foreword that you decided to squeeze in before this. And if the last sentence of your book is “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” then I want this to be the end. Not your afterword. Not whatever else you think you have to tell me after this. Just say whatever you have to say within your story.

AA seems to be unable to do this, probably because he realizes that his book might leave readers puzzled. “Where was the author in all this?” was a question that popped up in my mind after the last page. Or: “does he think that the characters in this book stand for anything?”

To help us, the readers, with these problems, AA gives us an “Author’s Note”, in which he explains that he deliberately chose to write in the third person, that he tried to exclude himself from the story, that it would have been a “luxury” to write in the first person because that way the readers would know that everything had to be seen through AA’s subjective eyes. He tells us how he found the characters in his book (one of them on a “World of Warcraft” forum and another one in an ominous “geo-location app” – whatever story might be lurking behind this detail). Then he goes on to tell us how he verified their stories. Finally, he warns us not to take his characters for what I thought they were: paper cuts that are supposed to stand for a generation of people.

I was tired when I finished this “Author’s Note”. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think this was a bad book, and I had even learned a bit about these young people that AA knew so well.

But I felt tired.

Overall, a 5/10.

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