ANGELINE KEK WRITES — Anyone who has lived to tell the tale can testify: life comes at you fast. The same sun rises daily, marking the start of another predicament to put right and another tight spot to escape. Thrown into the throes of life’s unrelenting torrent, how strange is it to one day find that these ups and downs have metamorphosed into tiring monotony?

Author Xu Zechen

In Beijing Sprawl (2023), author Xu Zechen invites you into a group of roommates-turned-circumstantial-friends, brought to life through the eyes of a 17-year-old boy named Muyu. Like many others, Muyu left his small village for a big city to achieve a better life: a notable career, someone to love and be loved by, and accolades worthy of returning home to say that you ‘made it.’

Composed of various short stories translated from Mandarin by Eric Abrahamsen and Jeremy TiangBeijing Sprawl promises extraordinary tales of the everyday.

All over Beijing, working-class people make do in tiny rental rooms. Muyu lives with three other young men crammed into bunk beds. As night falls, they roam the city, pasting ads for a fake ID business and even watching out for cops. In between, the young men play cards and drink on rooftops, the rolling Beijing skyline spread out beneath their gaze. Everything they dream of on the edge of the city sparkles in the distance – just out of reach.

Beijing Sprawl — 220 pages — $17.95 — Two Lines Press

Talk of women turns into talk of the future. As Muyu watches his friends, he notes that “they wanted something other than glimpsing women’s thighs and the abstract notion of wealth. All they had was a vague feeling of aspiration and the desire to ‘achieve something big.’ Even so, the idea of transforming their lives and ‘achieving something big’ was serious.” The promises of a big city are as enticing as they are elusive — many are convinced that opportunities live nowhere else. Despite the daily uphill battle, turning around and going home becomes more complicated. The city takes more than it ever cares to give, but what do you do when a pot of gold is promised on the other side?

Each short story in Beijing Sprawl focuses on different working-class members, separate lives tied together by the hope of something more. Tianxiu is a village genius who sees himself as a minuscule fish in a vast sea. Baolai is a young man who falls in love with a stranger in a bar window, who later becomes his demise. Feng Nian is an unfortunate soul who suffers from recurring dreams of being a circus six-eared macaque. An unnamed girl appears, unable to bear being home, only to return after years of waiting tables. In the end, no one can say that they control their own destiny — life is nothing if not hopelessly random and beautifully tragic. Tinged with surrealism, realism, dry humor, and whimsicality, author Xu Zechen writes tragedy in a way that makes it seem so big and small simultaneously.

Although life’s struggles escape none, the journey is rarely made alone. The short stories within Beijing Sprawl are as much about the toil of the working class as they are about the people you meet along the way. Simply put, “Beijing’s too big, and it’s far too easy to lose people.” Isn’t it worth it to cherish those who care enough to stick around and even more those who could not bear to stick around in the end? The end goal becomes all-encompassing and irrelevant as we tread the same old stream. Joy comes from the little things that cut through the monotonous uphill flow: friends to drink with, a hobby, an infatuation. In the face of endless uncertainty, purpose gives hope, and hope becomes the purpose.

Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is drawn towards poetry and writings that are unhesitatingly honest.

Edited by executive editor, Ella Kelleher






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