Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Cornerstone" of a Mystery

The Eye of Jade
by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $24.00

(Book Review by Xujun Eberlein)

Diane Wei Liang's female detective protagonist, Mei Wang, is a character built up of conflicts between her mindset and reality. She is aloof, "an outsider who never wanted to be in" while in college, but her college friends turn out to be the only ones who truly care about her. Her longing for her mother's love manifests as resentment, and her mother suddenly has a stroke before there is a chance to reconcile. She desperately wants to cure her mother, but she has no money or connections, and those things can only come from the sister she looks down on. She detests "guanxi" (connecting with purpose) and people who are good at it, yet whatever clues she obtains for her investigation are through "guanxi." Wherever she exhausts her network of relations, her means of investigation also dry up. For the most part the novel leaves the reader wondering if the only way for Mei Wang to make progress in Chinese society is to embrace the opposite of what she values.

Yet this is a quite realistic depiction of the late 1990s' Chinese society, post Cultural Revolution, in the midst of the Reform-and-Open era. And Diane Wei Liang is at her best depicting it using multi-voice dialogue. Here is such a dialogue at a class reunion:

"I'm going to Shenzhen. I've had enough of Beijing and Xinhua News Agency," Sparrow Li declared.

"What?" Fat Boy shouted. "You didn't tell me! You are giving up the Steel Bowl for a private local newspaper? Are you out of your mind?"

"What's so great about Xinhua News Agency? We have no housing, and the pay is lousy. When we graduated, it was all about getting a job with the big ministries. Now it's about money. If you are rich, you are somebody. I'm going to be the chief editor and make a lot of money."

"Don't be naïve." Big Sister Hui popped open a can of Tsing-tao beer. "What's money compared to power? Mei had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment when worked for the Ministry of Public Security. She traveled in official cars and dined in the best restaurants. She wasn't rich, but didn't she live a good life! Look at your chief. He doesn't need to be rich. He gets everything he needs and more from his job."

"I don't need a car. But I would like to have a roof over my head." Fat Boy sighed. "Beijing Daily is much worse than Xinhua News Agency. It doesn't even give me a dorm room. I'm thirty years old and still living with my parents. So I told the matchmakers that I'm only interested in girls whose work units have housing."

This conversation is so real, I can almost see those people's lips moving and hear their voices, as if they spoke in Chinese, as if I were among them.

Dialogue is also an economic means deployed in The Eye of Jade to convey background information of supporting characters. In the example above, with less than a page, we get to know several friends of Mei, even something about Mei herself, without dragging on through long descriptions.

The intimate reflection on everyday life of contemporary China is a good quality of this novel. For a reader who knows about China, this quality is engaging. Too often I can't finish a novel set in China written by non-Chinese, because it turns me off when the author gets obvious things wrong.

For readers who are less familiar with China, The Eye of Jade provides a lens into Chinese society. The author picked a good starting time for the story. Between 1980 and 1997 there were amazing changes that took place, almost as amazing as the changes between 1997 and now. The central case that Mei is investigating takes us back in time: to the origin of the relics she is trying to locate, nearly 2,000 years ago; to the circumstances of its disappearance 30 years ago; and to Mei’s youth 10 years ago. Thus, without a complete recount of history we are given insights into it. One can reasonably predict that, as future cases come for Mei Wang, we will get a chance to see China develops more, and hopefully also to explore more of its past.

That said, there are some holes in the work. For one thing, the Ministry of State Security (analog of the FBI) did not exist until 1983, so some of the retrospective actions during the Cultural Revolution in late 1960s are not completely plausible. Still, compared with some other English fiction on China, the lapses are small.

Ultimately, Mei Wang does not give in to the Chinese societal trap. Toward the end of the novel, Mei's true self, aloof and courageous as she is, does triumph. When her "guanxi" ends, she singular-handedly confronts each hypothesized suspect one by one, alone and determined. And sure enough, each confrontation takes her closer to the entire truth, until the case is solved.

At this point, however, this triumph should be read as the author's fictionalized ideal ending, rather than a depiction of the reality. After all, it is unlikely in reality that any private detective, not to mention a young woman apparently with no training in self-defense and no backup – would go to each (dangerous) suspect and point a finger at him, "You are the murderer, aren't you?" simply to see if he'll admit to it. A detective who relies on this approach wouldn't be the smartest one anyway.

So why does Diane Wei Liang make Mei Wang do this? One can find a partial answer from the author interview by her publisher, in which she explains:

"Guanxi is loosely translated as connections and networks of relations. But it means much more. It is a cornerstone of Chinese culture, as the society is operated according to it – people are introduced, things get done – or not – based on who they know."

Except guanxi is more like extra oil for an age-old societal machine than a cornerstone of Chinese culture. In any case "guanxi" is an external factor; the concept might assist a novelist to move forward a plot, but it can't enhance characterization, nor excite the reader. If Mei's entire investigation "operates according to it," the intricate behavior and actions would be absent. The final confrontations carried out by Mei Wang, therefore, are a last-ditch resolution for both the author and the central character.


This raises a key question: is this novel really a detective story? The answer is both yes and no. It is what the author sets out to make; it is not quite accepted as such by readers.

For detective genre readers, the fun of reading is solving a puzzle with the author. It is the chase of logical inference that is thrilling. In The Eye of Jade, however, this element is largely missing. Sure, Mei Wang confronts the suspects with her hypotheses, but when we see this, the hypotheses are already made. We read the conclusions without being letting in the process of reasoning, and we don't know how she gets there. This thrill is not quite there.

Apparently, the author has a different idea about what this book should be. The Eye of Jade is the first in a series of "Mei Wang Mystery" novels, for which the author has a very interesting and intriguing concept. The interview mentioned above opens with the following Q and A:

Q: Why did you decide to tell your story of modern China through the lens of crime fiction?

A: Because crime fiction brings together different elements of a society and exposes their frustrations, conflicts and desires. I found it an ideal format to examine the social and economical changes that are at the center of modern life in China. I also wanted to paint an honest and authentic picture of life in Beijing. "The Eye of Jade" gave me such an opportunity, allowing me to move among its different neighborhoods and varied social and economical groups, to explore the inner life of that fascinating city.

That is exactly what she does in The Eye of Jade, and quite successfully. The social and economic aspects of life in Beijing are given equal, if not greater, emphasis than Mei Wang's case investigation. A reader who is not looking for a particular genre story could enjoy both threads. To a mystery/crime genre reader, however, the author's stated goals, however admirable and ambitious, do not provide the same thrill as logical inference.

On the other hand, would a romance novel bother its readers for its lack of logic? No. One would have to be bothered by something else. This is to say, the genre label pre-sets reader expectations. It is a double-edged sword. It helps us find the right category for reading pleasure; it can also stop us from being entertained.

Therefore, the author has options. The smart idea of conveying modern China's societal change to English readers through genre fiction (which has a much greater readership than literary fiction) might actually work, if she finds the right genre and executes in it well. If she (or her publisher) chooses to stick with the current label, then she will need to enhance the genre's "cornerstone": logical inference.


Anonymous said...

Wow that is a pretty thorough review! Was this a published or self-published work? I'm surprised that the genre isn't better defined. It sounds mostly like a suspense book.

Xujun said...

Hi Steve, if you were asking about the novel, it is published by Simon & Schuster, a major publisher.

The review is only published on my blog. But it has been picked up by some other on-line pubs.

As for the novel, you are right its genre could be better defined. I think that's why it got low grading by readers on Either the genre label is not serving the book well, or the author needs to enhance some elements of the genre.

Other Lisa said...

I just read this book, interestingly enough. I enjoyed it for the depiction of the period and place, not so much as a detective story or piece of writing. I'd recommend it for people like myself who have had some experience in China or are interested in a little insight in fictional form.

Xujun said...

Welcome here, Lisa. Yes, I agree with you that the book is more a culture and place story than a detective one. That is also one of my points in the review. Glad to hear a similar view from you.