I’m not enamoured of short stories, they often feel like a cop out: “I couldn’t manage to write a whole novel, so here I wrote 10 000 words instead”. But in the hands of a really good tight writer, wow! So I gotta rave about The Dog by Jack Livings and confess that the only reason I picked it up was because of the dog on the cover. But once you get reading you realise a smart new short story writer has come onto the scene. The Dog has been awarded the 2015 PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize for debut fiction and named Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement.
Although Livings lives in New York and works for Time Inc, the stories in The Dog are all about China — another one of its attractions for me. At first I wondered if Livings was Chinese (the name is unusual for an American) but as explained by the site Bloom: Livings spent one year as an undergraduate in China in 1994 and visited again in 1997 and that experience “burrowed into Livings’s literary consciousness, took hold, and proceeded to percolate through his work for the next two decades”. Lisa Peet, the writer of this post, goes on to say that The Dog is all about place, and when I thought about that I realised, yes, she’s right. These are not just individual stories, they are facets of place (cue: students groaning at the thought of yet another Anthea reference to “place” in writing), or as Gerald Durrell would have it Fillets of Plaice, which name I first encountered an age ago and which stays with me to today.
When Livings was interviewed by Oscar Villon for the site Zyzyvva he gave this insight into the writing:
Z: For me, there was a great temptation to read these stories as dispatches from contemporary China. That is, these fictions serving as powerful dissections of the complex travails of that country in, mostly, the past couple of decades. How much does reportage inform these stories, if at all?
JL: Not much, if by reportage you mean boots-on-the-ground, notebook in hand, conducting interviews with the village folk about their lives during the Cultural Revolution. I was in China, mostly as a student, for about six months total in the mid-1990s, and that time does inform these stories, but in the sense that dispatches are meant to be snapshots that can be used as evidence to prop up theories about a country, or a war, or whatever, that was never my intention. I couldn’t begin to write something about China’s rising geopolitical influence or how anti-corruption measures are going to play out long term. I might, however, be able to say something about the lives of my characters.
And yet the stories come with a power, a strength and a directness that is really refreshing. They don’t prevaricate and dilute and explain so that an average American is comforted by having some handrail to get them over the chasm between the West and East. They go straight in and the foreignness (and everyday mundaneness) of these lives is in your face without apology. I liked that a lot. I also like the tone and voice. It seemed very robust, very non-euphemistic, very unsentimental, very take it or leave it, this is China (as I see it). Perhaps this tone and voice is best described in the review by Akshita Nanda in the review for The Straits Times as Livings ability to use “a staccato turn of phrase characteristic of many English translations of Chinese writings”. The reviewer for the City Weekend Beijing edition says: “One of the things we like most about Livings’ prose is his placing of natural English expressions in the mouths of his characters, essentially offering a sense of what they are saying in a context that an English-speaking reader can immediately relate to. Characters spouting transliterated Chinese phrases that sound awkward in English, or pinyin phrases in Mandarin—a common stylistic choice—can add flavor, but, if misused, often serve the story poorly.The character becomes the awkwardness of her speech, creating space between her and the reader. Livings’ refusal to do this to his characters does them a great service, they become real in a way that they might not have had he chosen a different way to portray their speech.”
The title story pulls a dog person into the hanging-in-the-balance life of a greyhound when greyhound racing is banned (and into the conflict between a husband and wife) and the “Crystal Sarcophogus” tells the story of the coffin made for Mao and the process of working with glass that ultimately ends up poisoning a host of dedicated people determined to crack the process of forging glass that will withstand decades and earthquakes.
These are gritty stories, how they don’t just skim the surface but give us these characters and these dilemmas, is the marvel that is Livings’ writing.