Fearful Reality9 min read

Kyle Muntz reviews Harvey Thomlinson’s novel The Strike

In a small town along the northern border of Heilongjiang Province, people gather to protest the closing of the Bright Moon electricity plant:

Still after the night blizzard neighbors had emerged in ones and twos from concrete stairwells strung with garlic bulbs… We can’t let them sell our factory Mrs. Gao said… They will steal our children’s future. There’s people going hungry.

The workers organize a strike, and are immediately labeled “dangerous … subversive criminals.” Their leader goes into in hiding, forbidden even the possibility of coverage in the news or collaboration with workers in other provinces. In China’s new economy, the inefficient state-owned factory is a relic of a past most of the country has already abandoned – yet, following half a year of unpaid wages, its loss will leave hundreds without work, a whole way of life coming to an end beneath an impenetrable media silence. This has happened before and it will happen again, in a hundred similar towns all across the country. But that doesn’t make it any easier to live with now.

The Strike, translator and publisher Harvey Thomlinson’s first novel, tells this story in a way that will defy the expectations of nearly all readers. Particularly as the novel is based on a composite of real events, I was tempted to set the work alongside nonfiction by Western journalists such as Evan Osnos or Peter Hessler as an exposé of life in modern China, written by an outsider who hopes to expose the realities of Reform and Opening Up– one in which modernity, for all its tangible gains, has often been experienced as alienation or even pain. Thomlinson, however, has something very different in mind.

Thomlinson has spoken of his desire to advance a new understanding of “syntactic and semantic structures” through language – a goal splendidly apparent in the style of the novel. As a stylist, Thomlinson aims high, with goals that recall modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe: writers concerned with the complex juxtaposition of interior thought and external reality. The result is a style that might almost be called stream-of-consciousness, where descriptions, memories and impressions mingle in an exploration of the vast interior landscape of day-to-day life. However, rather than being intentionally difficult or playful, Thomlinson’s prose feels purposeful and sharp, even as it even explores illusory, shifting emotions. The novel’s pyrotechnic language serves primarily as a window into the minds of his characters, resulting in a book where characterization and aesthetics are inseparable.

One of the most evocative figures in the novel is Old Yu, a former writer of “counter-revolutionary” pamphlets stricken with guilt and fear half a lifetime old: a remnant of the old world still struggling to live in the new. We first meet him, alone on a cold morning, walking with the same water brush that once nearly led to his arrest. As the strike gains momentum, he will be called to use it again – an action of momentous personal consequence, as he had resolved never to become involved in politics again. But even now, he can’t forget the woman he betrayed by his political acts:

Thirty years since his love Guihua’s appearance the river frozen over for months. He often thought about that incandescent summer they spent together her banners fly high in the sky dirty lumps of ice. One night floating half-submerged below a bridge they saw bodies on their way home the army took her.

Here we see the text’s unification of past and present, inside and outside, a powerful evocation of that basic, familiar reality of being in a place while thinking of something else. The sentences have a clipped, staccato momentum with very little punctuation, a furious sequence of impressions as “dirty lumps of ice” become the banners Old Yu once wrote for Guihua – a momentary glimpse of triumph that segues inevitably to dead bodies, a stark reminder of the price of resistance. Old Yu had been drawn into politics by this woman, but had given her up for his own amnesty when reality set in. Thirty years later, he decides to find her: a search that will force him to confront the terrible weight of his own guilt, of the life he had always imagined he might live, if only he hadn’t destroyed it.

Like many of his generation, Old Yu had “suffered grievously from history,” a suffering that makes him cautious, always worried the old days might return – an attitude shared by many others, as the novel quickly becomes a sprawling sequence of character portraits spread throughout the community, some recurring throughout the novel and others limited to a single chapter. Many are tied to larger political circumstances: the strike leader and the prostitute he wishes could love him; an organizer whose passion for the cause ruins his relationship with his wife. Others couldn’t care less about politics – city kids, artists, foreign dancers and smugglers. Thomlinson’s reality is remarkable for its persistent banality, the sense that normal life never gets easier to live, that even when important things are happening, other people are still caught up in their own stories.

One of my favorite characters is Meizhu, a local businesswoman whose chapter explores a fascinating perspective on the rapid modernization of small town life. Those changes gave her an opportunity, and she was more than happy to seize it. But her success has led the other townspeople to resent her, both for her “bourgeois egoism” and her scandalous love-life – an attitude shared by her ex-husband, a taxi-driver ashamed to be making less money than his former wife. For Meizhu economic progress has become an uncrossable bridge – a common divide between the country’s new-rich and the communities they emerge from. Again and again, Meizhu repeats her desire to succeed just to spite the townspeople. Alone among the cast, she also understands that it’s impossible for the Bright Moon plant to stay open in the new economy: that the desire to maintain Bright Moon is, in many ways, a desire to hold onto an already vanished past.

Again and again, Thomlinson shows us this divide between the old and the new – and the future isn’t always bright. Characters repeatedly feel they’ve been “crushed” by the narrative of progress: the bright, reflective surface of a perfect future country that seems to exist somewhere else, for other people. Even the closure of the Bright Moon plant is just the next stage in an abandonment that’s gone on for 30 years, something that becomes quite clear in a conversation midway through the novel, with its powerful sense of a lost collective purpose and responsibility. This passage reflects another of the novel’s stylistic tendencies in its occasional choice to lineate lines of dialogue, making them something between prose and poetry:

Everyone talks about the damn Bright Moon plant workers but

why should railway workers be ignored?…

We did our bit for the country as well.

Now what’s happened to us?

The past is dead… we worked

until we dropped.

The most divisive aspect of the novel may not be at the level of the sentence, but in its overall structure. Near the midpoint, I became unsure whether I would have preferred something more focused. Thomlinson’s aim is never playful or ironic, which distinguishes him from many other experimental writers. Instead, he’s advancing a whole understanding of the interconnected aimlessness of life, where events ripple chaotically through interlinked stories but lack a clear direction or structure. Some of the best moments in the book have nothing to do with the larger political situation or the characters I initially thought of as protagonists; then again, there were points where I found myself wishing a chapter or section had been excised. This is particularly the case with the foreign characters. Their chapters are interesting in themselves, but feel truncated and separate from the rest of the novel.

“The desire to keep the factory running is, in many ways, a desire to hold onto an already vanished past”

Perhaps the most striking thing about this novel is its refusal to be consistently political. Despite its importance to the community, very few of the characters are focused on the strike. Instead they’re caught up with their careers, their families, their survival. This makes Thomlinson’s politics quite slippery, in a way that might frustrate some readers. There’s very little of Osnos’ livid, rousing indictment of government corruption here. Thomlinson has picked such a potentially controversial subject matter – one that parallels current events, such as the recent government crackdown on Jasic strikers in Shenzhen, where this summer students joined workers in their call for better wages and working conditions – but some might feel it falls into the background. Similarly, Thomlinson is only peripherally concerned with showing the aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution, particularly as the novel spirals into its panoramic vision of interconnected humanity, one that largely leaves Old Yu and his regrets behind.

Instead, The Strike lies somewhere near the tradition of Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a story of normal people just living their lives, written in challenging prose that blends thought, memory and reality together. The insistence on banality makes the novel quite difficult to pin down, particularly when prominent early threads are abandoned – even Mrs. Dalloway presents a more traditionally unified narrative. This adherence to its own vision makes Thomlinson’s vision both bolder and more alienating, particularly considering that his choice of characters and subject matter are more often associated with journalism or traditional realism. For Thomlinson, life is messy and unstructured, without a clear focus or direction; and despite being set in China the novel feels somehow universal, an echo of the disillusionment much of the world feels as its factory workers are let go.

Yet without this novel, the lives of these characters would go unreported – and why, the reader wonders, must they be kept secret? Isn’t there something strange about this imposed blackness, this fear of the real? Particularly when many of the characters aren’t suffering: they’re just living. Thomlinson seems to see something essential in the glimpse he provides here, though unlike many other Western writers he’s hesitant to suggest easy answers to complicated questions. The Strike isn’t so much a critique of the status quo as a window into lives, struggling to find a way forward in challenging times, as the old dreams give way to the new. But as Thomlinson makes abundantly clear, in this “battle between the past and the future … There could be only one winner.” For better or worse, Thomlinson makes it more difficult to choose which side we should be on. ∎

Harvey Thomlinson, The Strike (Lucid Play Publishing, January 2018)