Alec Ash


when a book needs an author’s note

[note: I’ve been reading the English original]

The story: in the late 2000s, young British journalist Alec Ash arrives in Beijing. He makes friends with several young people (all of whom were born around the end of the 1980s) and decides to write about their life stories. Hence the subtitle: “Young Lives in New China”.

trying hard

This is 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. And it’s not bad. But it’s not great either. To me, it felt as if Ash was simply trying a bit too hard.

To give you an example, the book starts out with a Cast of Characters:

  • “military child, netizen, self-styled loser”
  • “small-business owner, dreamer”
  • “official’s daughter, Ph.D., patriot”
  • “country boy, internet gaming addict”, etc.

And Ash, sadly, chose to write large parts of his book in this way. Every protagonist seems to have to symbolize a group, everything they do seems to have to mean something. They feel like paper cut-outs.

Like in that episode where a young woman (the “small-business owner, dreamer”) gets into a discussion with a family member, and Ash notes:

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

Ah, filial piety! Paper cut-outs. Symbols.

who cares about Warcraft or Ikea?

And there’s another problem: while Ash’s writing style itself isn’t bad at all, he seems to enjoy bombarding 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 the game.

At another instance he talks about Ikea. In detail.

due explanation

Finally, I generally don’t 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.

Let’s say you write a totally awesome book and your first sentence is “Today, Maman died”. I want to start reading right there. 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.

Ash, however, adds an “Author’s Note”, in which he explains why he chose to write in the third person, why he tried to exclude himself from the story, why it would have been a “luxury” to write in the first person, etc.

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 cut-outs 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 individuals that Ash knew so well.

But I felt tired.

who might want to read this

Ash’s feat of living in China is nothing. His storytelling is good and his writing style is nice. He tends to over-explain a bit, but okay. Some of his observations and insights are interesting.

If you are particularly interested in the lives of young people from China in the late 2000s, read this.

Also read: Ding Haixiao, for the story of an actual young person from China.