cover image The Land of Big Numbers

The Land of Big Numbers

Te-Ping Chen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-358-27255-7

The often haunting stories in Chen’s strong debut follow characters striving for a better futures in China as buried memories begin to surface. The stories with an allegorical bent are some of the best, among them “New Fruit,” in which a “peculiar” agricultural offering, the qiguo, first intoxicates those who eat it, then kindles politically dangerous memories of the Cultural Revolution. Another standout is “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which a train delay traps passengers below ground for months because regulations state that they “must exit at a different station from where they entered.” The absurdism takes on a haunting quality as the passengers adapt to, and then come to prefer, their confinement. The more realist stories offer subtle portrayals of the costs of political activism (“Lulu”), seemingly unbridgeable cultural and marital gulfs (“Field Notes on a Marriage”), and, in the title story, the lure of wealth in China’s booming economy. “Shanghai Murmur,” a melancholy vignette about a florist’s fascination with a rich client, is the most psychologically complex in a collection where the characters can occasionally be one-dimensional. Still, Chen’s sweeping collection comprises many small moments of beauty. (Feb.)