China's Counterculture
BY SHELLY BRYANT I February 5, 2009

Wang Shuo. Playing for Thrills. No Exit Press, 1989. 325 pages.
ISBN 1-874061-92-0

Playing for Thrills

Wang Shuo is well known as a voice for the 1980's Chinese counterculture. He grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, living alone with his brother while their parents were kept busy in the nation's projects out in the various provinces. Playing for Thrills is one of his many novels that speaks of and for this generation of China's displaced, and it is a very insightful look into a world unknown by many outside of China's borders.

Fang Yan, the protagonist, finds himself accused of a murder that happened 10 years ago. The problem is, there are seven days during that period in his life that he cannot account for, and his memory of the time in question is generally pretty hazy. That is, of course, thanks to the fact that he was rarely sober then, or at any other time. Playing for Thrills begins with the question of Fang Yan's whereabouts during that seven day period a decade earlier. It is hard to say whether the rest of the novel is spent unraveling that question, or tangling it all up even further.

Fang Yan and his friends have returned from the war in Vietnam, and are disillusioned by the loss of their traditional values, which they feel have been ruthlessly stamped out in their homeland. Throughout the novel, there is all sorts of mockery of the stamping out of those old-world values, and an equal amount of mockery aimed at the old-world values themselves. This is a generation caught in-between, and in their banter, it is easy to see that they are very aware of their position.

Fang Yan and his pals don't know what to do with themselves, and so do the logical thing—nothing. They are mostly seen as a bunch of good-for-nothing vagabonds, though they all have an incredible capacity for invention. At one point in the novel, one of the female characters appropriately says to Fang Yan about one of their mutual friends, "If there was anything good to be had, his turn never came. I told him he was lucky to have that Vietnam war experience, especially coming home without a scratch, since he could brag all he wanted about heroic deeds to people who hadn't gone. All of you have some talent: As long as there are no witnesses, you can make it sound like the sky is raining flowers, make out as if your life has been one death-defying escapade after another. The fact that none of you has ever become a writer puzzles me. That would be the perfect career for one of your kind."

Fang's story is pretty interesting, and the telling of it is wonderfully confusing and entertaining. In a New York Times book review when the novel was newly released, it is said of Wang Shuo that "[i]nstead of criticizing the Communists for being autocratic, he does what is far more devastating: he mocks them for being uncool." That is a very good summary of how the novel plays out. Even for readers who are unfamiliar with life on the streets of Beijing, especially during that time in history, this book is one that can suck you right into that world. And it is quite a thrilling ride.



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