Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 31: The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan
Amazon: “Beijing, sometime in the near future: a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core. It is a message that will astound the world.
A kind of Brave New World reflecting the China of our times, The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future.”
This book is allegedly banned in China, and no wonder: it’s a chilling story that blends fiction and reality to construct an image of modern China, and if not China of exactly today, then the China of ~5 years from now. The novel introduces several characters with a range of lifestyles, motivations, and adaptations to the realpolitik of the Communist Party. The protagonist is not himself prone to revolutionary ideas, but he finds himself “taking the red pill” when he chooses to pursue a woman who has gone into hiding out of protection from the Party. He is one of those who has “forgotten” the lost month, but the woman he loves and a few other friends from the past remember vividly the crackdowns and fear that the government appears to have completely erased. When he falls in with them, he doesn’t begin to remember with complete clarity what happened, as they do, but he better understands his periodic feelings of unease and disillusionment with the seeming happiness and naiveté around him.
As a psuedo-documentary, this book works really well. The characters are fictional, and the specific conflict in the story (alleged government orchestration of an entire month being erased from public consciousness and history) is also fictional. However, the suggestions of power hierarchies and international political maneuvering are 100% believable, if not based in literal truth — and they might very well be, but I can’t consider myself suitably well-informed on the interactions of the Party and middle-class Chinese to know for sure.
As a fictional novel, the pacing and structure are a little lacking. The “big reveal” when the characters kidnap the Party leader takes place as an enormous infodump that spans close to twenty pages (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s quite a lot,) and though it’s effective in the “pseudo-documentary” format I mentioned above, as a climax to the story it’s too overwhelming in scope to be punchy and effective. The characters do get the answer to their question, and then essentially the novel ends, but when “the answer to the question” reads like a senior thesis on contemporary Chinese politics, the effect on me at the end of the book was like “What just happened?”
Overall, I’d recommend this book as it was absolutely interesting and revealing. Be prepared for the quick shift from fiction to (alleged) nonfiction at the end, though.