Dressed in his best clothes, unemployed Dan Dong heads to an exclusive hotel to apply for a bellman’s job. Instead, he is mistaken for a journalist, and falls into the world of exclusive banquets, where there is a presentation, delicious rare food, and a check for 200 yuan each time. Dan gets business cards made up and decides that banqueting is his new job. He is still a good-hearted man, however, and can’t help being swept up in the stories that desperate people tell him in order to make their lives better. As he uncovers corruption after corruption, Dan’s lies become strangely close to the truth.
There are so many facets of this book that it’s going to be hard to include them all in my review! I picked it up on the shelf because of a whim – I’ve been trying to read more multicultural fiction and the Chinese characters on the spine called to me. I was rewarded for my impulse by a really thoughtful book on corruption in modern China and the difference between truth and lies, and how they can mesh. Dan is unusually sensitive to food, so he struggles to quash his natural impulse to go to the banquets, always telling himself that a few more months will buy his wife a condo, a car, and so on, even though neither of them ever get any of these things.
Instead, he gets guilt trips from a variety of people when they find out he’s a journalist, and this is where the corruption comes in. Dan finds out about these things and he wants to do something about them, but he isn’t a good enough writer. He never got past middle school. But, eventually, his honest longing leads to him giving it a try, and that’s when we learn that the papers are corrupt, too. So, is he a freelance journalist, or is he still a banquet bug? Or is he both? It’s intriguing and the book doesn’t give the answers, doesn’t even have a solid conclusion, but instead makes us think about what happened to Dan. The book also demonstrates how the workers – supposedly the lifeblood of communist China – are in the worst possible situation, forced to break the law to get any money because they can’t afford a lawyer or a lawsuit.
Of course, it’s enjoyable, too. The author’s first language is Chinese – she left China for the US in adulthood – but she has a wonderful prose style and I would never have known that this was her first book in English. I was really interested in Dan’s character. He’s so often crippled by guilt because he gets mired in a web of lies, but he’s not as weak as he first appears, and deceit is not actually in his nature. It’s a neat trick to pull off. The secondary characters liven up the story, with various prostitutes, journalists, and rich people making Dan’s life interesting and dangerous. In contrast to Dan’s experience of “modern” life, his wife Little Plum is almost a caricature of the ideal Chinese peasant, as she does little but sit at home, do minor jobs, and cook for Dan, often representing his good side and his wisdom. The nature of Chinese society is depressing here, what with all the censorship and lies, but it seems as though Yan is trying to provide hope through Dan, who sees the injustices and wishes to correct them instead of perpetuating them.
The Uninvited was a fortuitous find for me and I’m very glad I read it. I’m really looking forward to reading more by Geling Yan.
I am an Amazon Associate. This title is known as The Banquet Bug in the US. I borrowed this book from my local library.