Jack Livings successfully makes his writing debut with The Dog – a collection of short stories following a variety of citizens of modern China. His aim with these pieces is to give the reader an insight into the country’s culture and people – an insight that delves deeper than the usual, one-dimensional stereotype. The eight pieces range from telling the story of a successful businessman as he reacts to a devastating earthquake, to a homosexual man within a family of gangsters, to a group of engineers building a crystal coffin for the fallen Chairman Mao.
Despite each story being relatively short, Livings manages to delve into the character of each protagonist in such a way that we can fully empathise with their struggles. He strikes a perfect balance by covering their backgrounds and defining moments, without distracting too much from the main focus of their present stories.
Additionally, Livings has an interesting technique whereby he occasionally switches perspective between primary and secondary characters. This gives us an additional insight, which we would otherwise be lacking. For example, ‘The Pocketbook’ follows an American student living in China. At one point in her story she is cycling through the city when a thief steals her pocketbook. We may make some assumptions about the culprit – perhaps that he is immoral or greedy – but Livings goes on to shift perspectives and we learn that he is in fact a starving child who was sold into a life of crime.
Livings’ use of these techniques has allowed him to create a stunning piece of literature. In just one collection he successfully covers a broad range of people within China, simultaneously providing a deeper understanding of their culture as a whole. What I found especially refreshing was Livings’ decision to veer clear of the usual stereotypes. For example, the things which I most closely associate with China – their one child policy, communist government and corrupt officials – are either not touched upon at all, or exist only in the background of the character’s stories. This seems to be a purposeful attempt by Livings to show that there is much more to China than our common (mis)conceptions.
Livings himself only resided in China over a short period in the 1990s where he studied and worked as an English teacher. Considering this, he has an impressive breadth of knowledge of Chinese culture, language and traditions: his stories may as well have been written by a native. Overall, as someone who had very little knowledge of China before reading The Dog, this collection provides a broader perspective. Thus Livings has succeeded in his aim of informing his readers of Chinese culture.
Image: Fredrik Rubensson