Like Wang Shuo, Jia Pingwa, Liu Heng and other outcast authors born in the 1960s-70s who came of age in the 80s-90s, Zhu Wen maintains an uneasy, on-off relationship with his present milieu, having a great deal to say that few seem to want to read about. The Chinese audience for domestic fiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not much interested in realist or ironic descriptions of their society, in contemplating unflattering mirrors held up to them showing the dark side of their country's meteoric prosperity. Instead, as with most readers everywhere in our age of US cultural hegemony spearheaded by Hollywood, Disney and Apple, contemporary Chinese who read at all are more interested in fiction that appeals to their desires and longings, in escapist and fantasy writing, formulaic romances and mysteries, inspirational biographies, self-help books and get-rich-quick guides, in books that manage to combine all of these aspirations to some degree: the Harry Potter series, Dan Brown's tomes, or word-of-mouth bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret (all widely popular in the Chinese). It's not that there is no potential readership for serious or "literary" fiction; it's just that few publishers have the financial incentive to venture into such dicey territory (sound familiar?), not to mention the toxic byways of political satire in China. The result is that the audience for Chinese realism and satire is largely relegated to the foreign readership in translation. It is also noteworthy that the title novella I Love Dollars and the five other stories in this collection were all published in the original almost two decades ago.
The packaging for the English readership is curious and (I feel) somewhat disingenuous, with the blurbs playing up the comic selling points ad nauseum: "an absorbing portrait of the go-go years in China...extravagantly funny"; a "hilarious send-up of China's love affair with capitalism"; "as penetrating as Kafka, as outrageously funny as Larry David, and with a slangy swagger all Zhu Wen's own"; "...would make anyone laugh...classic comic fiction of the highest order." I did not find the stories particularly funny; sad, poignant, and telling perhaps, or black humor at its grimmest, but not laughter-inducing. The narrator of the title story seeks a prostitute to entertain his father in his middle-aged lassitude and when that fails, asks a girlfriend if she would offer herself to him for generosity's sake (she angrily refuses). The narrator's girlfriend in "A Hospital Night" bullies him into standing watch until dawn in a hospital ward over her irascible father after his gallbladder operation, which involves repeatedly sticking the man's penis into a plastic bottle to enable him to urinate while repeatedly being fought off, in front of all the other staring patients in the room. The narrator of "A Boat Crossing" gets lodged in a ferry cabin with a rough trio of men bearing a dead body in a sack; it's unclear whether the cadaver is to be used for medical instruction or is really a murder victim. Meanwhile a woman tries to sell her 17-year old niece to him for $500, and that's not to have sex but really to sell her and convey the money back to the girl's destitute family. "Wheels" spins the street accident theme increasingly notorious in the Chinese press these days, as the narrator unknowingly "brushed against some old man's arm as I rode down the hill" on his bicycle, and his ignoring this slight makes for dour consequences.
I might add here that if a Western male expat writer were to attempt similar themes in the Chinese context, particularly those involving Chinese females, he would lambasted as highly sexist and irresponsible at best, or exaggerated and implausible at worst, though that's a conundrum of the English publishing world and is refreshingly irrelevant here. While I occasionally got bogged down in Zhu's narrow, relentless Beckett-like focus on gritty and sordid minutiae, elsewhere his technique is assured and I found the stories largely memorable and instructive in their own way, vividly conjuring up scenes and locales I would rather not personally have to encounter.