Review: The Book of Shanghai

Edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li (Comma Press, 2020)

Featuring Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Dacheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiolan, Fu Yuehui and Wang Zhanhei

Translated by Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

The Book of Shanghai is the latest in the Reading the City series from Comma Press, and brings together ten stories of alienation at the heart of a busy metropolis. This futuristic city is the perfect site to show the disenfranchisement that comes with progress, and the insidious danger of replacing relationships and human contact with technological advances. The glittering façade of Shanghai’s high-rise buildings and neon lights is rejected in favour of what happens on the streets below, as we meet an array of memorable characters navigating situations as diverse as losing a mobile phone, collecting sellable waste, floating through an apocalyptic flood in a bathtub, and the end of the world. Five of the ten included authors are women, emphasising the commitment Comma Press make to aiming for gender parity in their anthologies (you can read more about that in my interview with Comma’s Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner).

The stories in The Book of Shanghai also highlight the deep rift between human experience and the advance of technology, cybernetic umbilical cords that anchor us to the future while leaving us adrift in the present. Loneliness is a recurring theme, along with a disconnection that seems ironic in a city so plugged into global networks and development. In “The Novelist in the Attic” (Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves) a writer struggles with his legacy, and questions his usefulness in a world that has left him behind (I particularly enjoyed the following lament: “Just because I, the writer, am simple-minded, my protagonist has turned out to be a dumb fool too. Imagine that, my sole contribution to this world, nothing but the passing on of my own imbecility into fiction.”) Like other stories in the collection, “The Novelist in the Attic” has a touch of the surreal, mirroring the other-worldly sense of the murky labyrinthine streets that we see from beneath the shimmering high-rises of the city.

In several of the stories in The Book of Shanghai lives cross paths in chance encounters and stolen moments, while family bonds disintegrate and are redefined: in “The Story of Ah-Ming” (Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald), an elderly woman is cast out by her family because of the lengths she goes to in her attempts to help them, while in “Snow” (Chen Danyan, translated by Paul Harris), a woman is surrounded by relatives but still feels lonely, and escapes into literature. The city comes alive (in sometimes unnerving ways) in these tales where ruptures abound, relationships falter, and individuals hurtle perilously towards solitude, shame, failure or death. In my favourite story of the collection, “State of Trance” (Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg), we accompany one man through the last night on Earth, as he decides to take “an action that will place a perfect full stop at the end of civilisation”: his mission is to go to Shanghai Library and return the book he has borrowed.

Teeming with profound reflections, offbeat humour and unsettling observations, the individual stories hang perfectly together to create a vivid panorama of snapshots of life in a fast-moving city. Enervated and visionary, these contemporary stories acknowledge the past while focusing on an uncertain future: The Book of Shanghai is an excellent addition to a consistently innovative series.

The Comma Press podcast is back! You can hear more about The Book of Shanghai in a forthcoming episode, and if you enjoyed Europa28, you might like to tune into that episode too. You can see the series 2 schedule here.

Review copy of The Book of Shanghai provided by Comma Press

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