An Excess Male – More Than Necessary Reading

51WJWWdGrzLIt’s a great time for readers and writers of dystopian fiction. Whatever world you want to imagine where something terrible is happening, it is out there for you. One can recede into the classics, finding new relevancies and warnings. Then there are the newer stories that draw inspiration from the past, with the emotional resonance of today’s anxieties. I mean, sure the world is terrible, but we can always imagine new ways it could be worse, right? I honestly did not realize that I was going to be reading about a dystopia. The very basic description had an air of a satire, sexually oppressing the men to highlight the avalanche of anti-woman dystopian stories in our culture. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male instead provides a narratively balanced but horrific look into a banal and homogenous society that feels like the next logical step in the nationalistic population restrictions seen today in modern China.

In An Excess Male, the one-child policy is still in place and the Chinese government has expanded upon it by allowing women more than one husband due to the disproportionate number of men in their society. Each man can have one child with his wife, and the blended families act as a single unit. The story begins with Wei-Guo, a forty-year-old fitness instructor, as he attempts to become the third husband in an already troubled family. The initial husbands to twenty-two-year-old May-Ling are brothers, a sixty-year-old businessman and a software engineer in his fifties. The story is told through the perspective of all four characters as they weigh the pros and cons of letting Wei Guo enter their lives. The family grows closer and secrets are revealed as the oppressive weight of national duty grows heavier on everyone’s shoulders.

Plot and pace-wise, the book feels closely-woven with short focused chapters that exude empathy, while also subtly filling empty space with inescapable dread. The narrative takes place over a few weeks, setting up the story as a snapshot of these character’s lives where the stakes feel incredibly universal, but ultimately very personal. King chooses to place the story in a time where the rules have already been established, enabling her to focus on how lives unravel as individuals attempt to mold themselves to meet the stringent needs of a system. Personal feelings, habits, and ways of life that we take for granted are examined through a system that ultimately finds the open expression of diversity to be inherently hostile. King also manages to highlight how the ruling regime benefits a very small subset of people, using small personal connections between the characters and others in different strata of the society. King uses numerous lenses including lifestyles, sexual orientations, and even cultural views of developmental disorders to demonstrate that regardless of gender, nobody benefits from such a societal structure.

King is not only able to control the plot with an even hand but successfully molds it to highlight the story’s antagonist. As the narrative progresses, the characters’ personal dynamics change, shifting between excitement and anxiety as they process welcoming a new person to their family. While these emotions are normal, they are exacerbated by ever-present pressure from the story’s Chinese government and society. What you or I would consider to be normal interactions are given new weight and urgency under the regime that King has created. The trifecta of husbands are willing to submit to whatever demands are made of them in order to look normal and fit in, while May-Ling is cornered by her lack of choice and will, her feelings negated in the service of society. It is a brutal expectation, reinforced systematically and repeatedly through their interactions with each other and everyone else they encounter. King shines by coating almost every moment with this creeping oppression, never fully overwhelming the reader until she needs to.

King’s writing of her characters complements this tremendously. Instead of focusing on changing her writing between the point of view switches, King chooses to centralize her protagonists differing emotions. King highlights how little anxieties pile up on each of the separate characters, immediately making them relatable. The hardest part as the reader is knowing how all the characters feel as you watch the proverbial emotional pot boil over repeatedly. I found myself hoping that the characters would open up and talk about their feelings with one another, thus sharing just how awful their experience is. When they finally have conversations about their feelings, hopes, and fears, it was a hollow catharsis. It did not matter. The characters could not solve their problems by working together because they were not each other’s problems. Rather, the society they are forced to inhabit is the problem, as it stokes the flames of existing insecurities, fears, and anxieties. While May-Ling and her husbands understand this, they also know they cannot change the system but also cannot change themselves to meet the strict standards. They are left to take it out on each other.

When I first read this story, I was sucked into these people’s lives, wondering how they were going to escape, or if there was even a chance for escape. Things that felt quirky and weird in the beginning became darker and more sinister as the book went on. There was one moment where the illusion was broken and the emotional waltz was interrupted as a pure naked force was used by the Chinese government. It seemed unnecessary to incorporate blatant state-sponsored violence to advance the plot, considering how well-paced everything else felt. After a few days of thinking on it, however, I realized it had to be there. I got so caught up in the machinations of the system, so enamored with King’s future China, and so mixed up in the emotions of these fictional characters that I had forgotten about the real, tangible violence already being inflicted. The brutal display of physical power was there to remind the audience that people’s lives were actually being ruined. Sure, it is a story- a good one, with excellent characters- but it is also a warning. Even though you might find a way to scrape by and conform in the small ways that take the eyes off you, others cannot. In such a world, those that cannot comply must be removed in order to ensure that the whole is perceived as homogenous.

An Excess Male is the right kind of dystopia. It does not overwhelm initially by introducing an interesting premise and slowly ramping up the tension. By choosing to focus on such a small time period in May-Ling and Wei-Guo’s lives, King allows the reader to expand the tension across other aspects of daily life outside the book’s focus. These small interactions add up through the book, painting an elaborate picture of emotional friction that has no true resolution. While I have become more and more a proponent of trying to envision a future that is worth fighting for through stories, books like An Excess Male can also play a role in the uncertain times we live in. Just as I was distracted by the intricacies of this menacing dystopia, I realized that I and others must avoid lulling ourselves to sleep with “it can always be worse” stories of totalitarianism. Because it can always be worse, but people are also hurting right now.

Rating: An Excess Male – 8.5/10
-Alex

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Bridge of Birds – Can’t See The Flock For The Fowls

15177The pun in my title would work a lot better if this book had been bad, but alas, it was amazing. Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an underappreciated fantasy gem from the 80’s that I feel more people should know about. On the surface, it is a simple and elegant alternative history story set inChina, describing the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in dealing with a mysterious disease. The book is told in style reminiscent of a traditional fable and jumps between many small stories with clear morals that seem loosely connected. However, under the seemingly shallow exterior of this tale lies a deep and complex story that is just waiting to be discovered.

As mentioned, the plot of Bridge of Birds is ostensibly a simple one: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this malady, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates the venerable Master Li who agrees to assist him. They identify a potential cure to the plague, a rare root of power, and go on a multi-stage quest to find it. Simple, clean, clear – that is how the plot of Bridge of Birds portrays itself. It is a lie. There is a lot going on in this book, much of it below the surface. There are three or four stories beautifully intertwined in the book, and the deeper you go, the more you will realize that the book has a lot more going on than simple morals. It is a cleverly crafted, and intensely planned, novel that will lure you in with its great humor and fun antics, and pull the rug out from under you.

Speaking of humor, the book is hilarious. Not in the typical laugh-out-loud way, but in a more contextual hilarity sort of way. Each chapter functions as a small tale where the Ox learns a valuable lesson; and the themes rotate between wisdom, hilarity, and melancholy. The full cast of the book is massive for its size, with each chapter often introducing new characters that sometimes only stick around until the end of that section. While many of these characters are fairly shallow and one dimensional, a number of the cast (in particular Li and Ox) feel both like they have a nice depth to them and like they go through some good character arcs.

If you are a long time reader of the site you will know that I am a huge sucker for powerful narrative techniques, and Bridge of Birds delivers on this in spades. I am not Chinese, but I got the distinct impression that Barry Hughart had a good understanding of the country’s lore and storytelling styles – as the book feels like it was lifted straight out of Chinese fable. Hughart uses this narrative style to make the book feel welcoming and warm to all ages, even when there are some truly gruesome and violent scenes. I initially thought that this would be a great book to read to my someday children until I saw what the upbeat tone hid under the surface. The style serves to make the story feel more emotionally impactful and deep, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the narrative effect than a quote from the book itself: “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can”.

The prose and writing are also top-notch. There were numerous times that Hughart’s descriptives, of both positive and negative experiences, elicited a physical response from me due to their evocative nature. Hughart has crafted a book that is endlessly quotable, with many lines burning themselves into my memory out of pure brilliance. Which brings me to what I would consider Bridge of Bird’s strongest attribute – it is incredibly memorable. For such a small book, it holds an impressive emotional weight. I can still remember almost every chapter clearly after finishing it, and I already want to reread it to see what I missed. Everything in the book had a profound way of coming together in the end, and I bet I missed a ton of small hints and nods as I bumbled my way through the tale.

Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. This small book was a part of our yearly book club and now has the esteemed honor of being our highest rated book – ever. Every one of us who picked it up was moved by its words and clever philosophies, and I would be willing to bet money that the effect is not localized to us. If you haven’t had the chance to read this incredible book, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. For I may have a small flaw in my character, but my recommendation for this book is certainly not a part of it.

Rating: Bridge of Birds – 10/10
-Andrew