Koonchung Chan’s The Fat Years is a chilling account of a very possible near future. It was originally published in Chinese in 2010, but is finally available in English. The book is set in 2013. China has been the world’s only super-power for two years since the US dollar dropped 30% in a single day plunging all other world economies into chaos in 2011 (it seems we just barely escaped this).
As the story opens China is confident, the people are happy, and a strange man (Fang Caodi) confronts an old friend (Old Chen) about a missing month. He tells Old Chen that despite the official account which states that China’s rise and the global downfall were on the same day, they were actually a month apart. Fang Caodi claims that this was a period of brutal repression, yet no one else seems to have any recollection of it. After this initial exchange, Master Chen and a host of other characters from a variety of social positions guide you through life in the newly rich country and a few band together to help Fang Caodi discover what really happened.
The rest of the story reads like a combination of Kafka and Orwell that joins the mad feeling of confusion with an all powerful state. Or at least it does for the first 2/3rd’s of the book that make up the story’s main narrative, then oddly (but not in a way that takes away from the power of the book), the author chooses a different approach to the last 1/3rd of the book which is a monologue by a more peripheral character. This last third was the most intriguing for me.
While this book is fiction, I had remind myself of that fact after almost every page turn. The author’s skill isn’t so much in the narrative as his ability to play subversively with the past, the present and the near future. I constantly got the sense that when he was describing future events, he was actually talking about something that had already happened, or was smartly critiquing the attitudes of the present.
Chan also toys with ideas ranging from society’s ability to forget brutality once they reach prosperity; the value 0f 95% freedom; and a revisit of Lu Xun’s concept of a good hell versus a false paradise.
The book also explores some of the more interesting sub-sects of modern day China, including a look at the ultra-nationalist factions that promote the idea that China is destined to be great. These ultra-nationalists fully support the Party’s approach to leadership, and claim that it is only through the guile of foreign powers that China has been made weak. Unfortunately the character that represents this mindset is strangely absent from the latter half of the story, which is really a missed opportunity by Chan.
Several times I found myself closing my copy of this book and setting it aside for a few days before I felt ready to grapple again with some of the challenging ideas presented in it. I love this in a book. I would strongly recommend The Fat Years for people who are interested in what the beginning of a Chinese century could look like, but also for those who would like to further explore present day China through a very different lens.
The Fat Years is available on Amazon.com, $16 for hardback or $13.99 for Kindle