Land of Big Numbers is an anthology of ten stories by Te-Ping Chen. They are either set in China or feature Chinese emigres abroad. Chen is a journalist who has lived in China and provides an acute sense of place in her stories.
“Lulu” is a story narrated by Lulu’s twin brother who was born shortly before her. Despite his small head start he spent most of his life not even trying to catch up to his brilliant and talented sister. While she scored high enough to go to the national university he went to school an hour from home and more or less majored in video games. But brilliance is not always beneficial in a country where official scrutiny can be dangerous. Another story, “Hotline Girl” tells of a customer service representative for an agency that is supposed to solve problems. The story itself is equivocal, but I wish we had such agencies. I thought the stories, one following the other, gave such different views of the government, in one a far-away and sinister oppressor and in the other a friendly, neighborhood voice solving people’s problems.
A few stories were more allegorical. In “New Fruit” a farmer hybridizes a new fruit with magical properties to influence people’s emotions, producing happiness, shame, and regret. “Gubeikou Spirit” tells of a crowd of people trapped in a subway station by a mechanical breakdown in once sense, but by bureaucratic lack of common sense in another. Unable to leave from the same station they entered, they are imprisoned by bureaucracy and come to love it.
I enjoyed all of the stories Land of Big Numbers. I loved how different they all were. Sometimes an anthology creates a narrative arc with its stories or reiterates a consistent theme. This book was not constrained that way and so we get ten very different stories. Some are small stories of a day on vacation or at work. Some stories tell the arc of someone’s life. Others are dramatic stories with violence and repression. They are all interesting and with a rich feeling of being there. The one thing that would make the book richer would be filling out the characters a bit more so that we see them change.
I received an ARC of Land of Big Numbers from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.