The Fat Years is the recent English translation (by Michael S. Duke) of Chan Koonchung’s novel 盛世: 中国2013. Shengshi, the first two characters, could be directly transliterated as something along the lines of ‘Prosperous World’ (the second two characters are those for China).
Alternatively, it could be translated as The Golden Age. Also, funnily enough, the characters are used for the Chinese version of the company Saatchi and Saatchi, “The Lovemarks Company”.
The choice of The Fat Years as title (which was the author’s own preference) neatly emphasises that things haven’t always been this way, and circles will turn around again, later.
In Chan’s imagined future, there’s nothing better than life in China 2013, as the economy is booming and any other issue is slowly effaced by this rising tide lifting all boats. The fly in the ointment is the fact that no-one can remember the events of a certain critical month in the nation’s rise to prominence.
Almost everyone is utterly happy. The narrator, Chen, knows his history and aims to see the world as it is, but he still is on the crest of a wave, carried along by something he’s only beginning to feel (as the book opens). The tone is optimistic and genteel, with only the odd dip into pretty blatant sarcasm – though not on Chen’s part – such as the following:
Look how busy the mall is. The young people look great, and there are so many visitors and tourists from abroad – what an international city. And everybody’s shopping – stimulating domestic demand and contributing to society.
Either the fat years of consumption and internationalism have truly made everyone happy, or there is some chemical plot to keep people from looking back – additives in the drinking water, false Bird Flu inoculations, an enormous conspiracy with no obviously evil intentions. The answer, when it finally comes, is a little of both.
[A similar story of narcotics for the greater good is ‘The Olympic Dream’, translated here]
I wanted to write about The Fat Years because of one moment in particular, something that made me sit back; suddenly thoughts about how I write came spinning in. Chen is sitting in Starbucks trying to recapture his Sanlitun mood (the mall described above).
Then I remembered how depressed Little Xi looked and it makes me sad. Everybody around us is living the good life, while she’s becoming more and more despondent. I take a couple of deep breaths and fight back my tears. I used to be a very cool guy. Why am I so sentimental these days? I don’t even notice that a lone teardrop has slipped out of my eye like a fish through a net and fallen right into my Lychee Black Dragon Latte.
A tear falling from the eye membrane like a fish through a net felt preposterous on first reading – an incredibly strong metaphor, when only those that are weak ought to be acceptable. We shouldn’t have license to make such enormous figurative steps – that was my gut instinct.
But it obviously works. Oil into oil: wealth and happiness squeezing out and ‘slipping’. The joy has been in his body throughout the chapter, it is in fact corporeal, and as such can only squirt from his face in a kind of cod-liver drop. I liked it more and more as I looked back.
But I wouldn’t dare turn a phrase like that in my own writing. I scanned over a few pages and saw how Fight the Landlord is littered with weak similes: everything is ‘as if’ it were something else.
So that put them here, along the wet bar-top or on the red sofas that looked expensive but also had something seedy about them, even Anthony could sense that, as if they hadn’t been washed down since the darker weekend nights.
On this floor she comes out panting just as the lift doors are opening for a delivery man with the crash helmet still on, he’s fumbling with the neck buckles as if he’s been trying to take it off during the whole ride up, which is only twenty seconds if the lift doesn’t stop – and why would it, ascending and during the daytime dead zones outside the commute, when no-one is going up anyway if they’re not coming from the first floor.
She gave him a look as if she didn’t trust him.
I can’t shake off this mood: everything is exactly how it would be if we knew this conditional had been satisfied – but how are we ever going to do that? Get inside someone else’s head or know the truth about events that have happened outside the narrative’s voice…
It’s weak. The paragraphs gently overlap with their own possible interpretations, but refuse to assert them.
But on the other hand I don’t want to change anything. The language comes out of an inability to make any definite connections between characters. It needs to stay that way, or everything in the novel would be different.
The Fat Years does this in another way. (By this, I mean undermines itself, runs strands counter to what it ‘should’ be about). The main character is initially only interested in pursuing the truth of what has happened in China because of sexual attraction – that’s the trigger that makes the tear fall like a fish through a net. He is fascinated with how Little Xi looks and moves, and is constantly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of following his lust: to get sucked into her world of bitterness and police tails, a refusal to let go of the past, or bring her back and make her happy once more. By fucking her.
We see how little he believes what he says:
At the kitchen table, I decided to make a final attempt to redeem myself in her eyes. I now had an idea of what she was thinking. She was feeling that everyone around her was different and she was the only one who was still angry. I sounded her out. ‘You know, Little Xi, some people are better at pretending about life, and pretending is a good way to protect their real selves.’ When I saw her eyes light up, I knew I’d hit on something.
‘Obviously, if you pretend for a long time, then you’re not going to be able to distinguish between what is true and what is fake,’ I continued. Little Xi listened quietly.
I followed this line of argument, making it up as I went along.
Chen then outlines the typical dystopian choice – allow yourself to be happy in a world where something is horribly wrong, or commit to being miserable and persecuted for the sake of being open-eyed. By saying the words, for whatever motive, they start to take effect on him:
I wasn’t sure what exactly I was trying to say, but the more I spoke, the more I felt I was making good sense.
And the novel slowly lets this false approach slough off, and by the end Chen means it. The whole book – and the grim reveal at the end – is about the dangers of choosing contentment over the truth. But running and tugging in the opposite direction all the while is this idea that following the truth is a kind of sexually-driven choice itself, unable to take place unless you start inventing it on the seediest of pretexts.