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How Han Han’s 1988 fails to de­liver


Any­one who has been lum­bered with the moniker “Spokesper­son for a Gen­er­a­tion” has quickly found it a mill­stone around their neck. Bob Dy­lan de­spised it; for Kurt Cobain, the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion con­trib­uted to his sui­cide; and Dou­glas Cou­p­land was ask­ing for trou­ble with his books riff­ing on the na­ture of Gen­er­a­tion X and Gen­er­a­tion A. But for Chi­nese lit­er­ary star Han Han (韩寒), it never seemed a prob­lem. From his suc­cess­ful de­but— Triple Door (2000), which was the best-sell­ing novel in China in 20 years—han ar­rived as a celebrity, aged just 17. In many ways the high school dropout re­mained the eter­nal teenager. Now in his mid-30s, he still looks like the front­man of a Korean boy band.

In his early years, Han’s stock rose fast; by 2008 he was pretty much the most read blog­ger in the world, and in 2010 Time mag­a­zine named him one of the world’s 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple. Per­haps un­help­fully, even com­i­cally, he was com­pared to Lu Xun, prob­a­bly China’s most prom­i­nent 20th cen­tury writer and cer­tainly one of its most scathing and satir­i­cal. Han’s achieve­ments weren’t bad go­ing for a kid. He then, nat­u­rally, found time to in­dulge in a range of be­hav­iors most angst-rid­den teenagers love or dream of: a car-rac­ing ca­reer, dab­bling in film and mu­sic, and lit­er­ally giv­ing au­thor­ity fig­ures the mid­dle fin­ger.

Through­out his writ­ing ca­reer, he struck a rebel’s pose and found am­ple op­por­tu­nity to cover a range of hot-but­ton is­sues, the type that you re­ally ought to steer clear of in China. Yet he never got into any real trou­ble: no gov­ern­ment con­dem­na­tion, no “in­vi­ta­tion to drink tea”, no show tri­als. In fact, other than a few blog posts being taken down and the failed ven­ture of his lit­er­ary journal, Party, his ca­reer and life seemed one of cloud­less as­cent. In­deed, this is the big­gest gripe from his de­trac­tors. They seem to think that be­cause he has not been at least sent to prison, his work must lack value, or even worse, that at some level he must be a gov­ern­ment stooge. It seems an un­fair crit­i­cism that any dis­cus­sion of im­prov­ing so­ci­ety is not of value un­less it is of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary va­ri­ety that leaves you hanged, drawn, and quar­tered.

In­stead, Han has en­gaged in what some crit­ics have called “edge-balling”, a term taken from ping-pong that means to hit the ball to the edges of the ta­ble but keep it in play. It seems a rea­son­able enough line for Han to take and does not come with­out its own risks, as the lines of what is and is not ac­cept­able in Chi­nese pub­lic dis­course are no­to­ri­ously neb­u­lous.

His most re­cent tome, 1988: I Want to Talk with the World, is not an edge-baller and is de­void of any di­rect po­lit­i­cal con­tent. In­stead it is a road trip— 1988 refers to the year of the nar­ra­tor’s car—mus­ing on loss, mem­ory, and that old chest­nut: the mean­ing of life. These are big themes and Han’s novel falls short of say­ing any­thing par­tic­u­larly sub­stan­tial about them, yet avoids be­com­ing an ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble book. The tone smacks of a tal­ented ado­les­cent strain­ing to find mean­ing in the world and strug­gling to come up with any­thing more than a con­fused stream of very heart­felt feel­ings, though Han can cer­tainly be for­given for that. Speak­ing of the book in a New Yorker pro­file, he says, “In previous books, I wanted my read­ers to love ev­ery sin­gle page, to laugh at the jokes, to be im­pressed with ev­ery de­tail. I’ve done enough of that. I’m start­ing to write real fiction.” In­ter­est, hu­mor, and im­press­ing with ev­ery de­tail seem odd fea­tures to dis­pense with. And he has suc­ceeded all too well.

The book fol­lows its first-per­son nar­ra­tor as he goes a road trip across China to col­lect a friend from prison. On the way he picks up a preg­nant pros­ti­tute whom he views with an awk­ward mix of pity, am­biva­lence, and sym­pa­thy. On the jour­ney, the nar­ra­tive is spliced with a se­ries of flash­backs to the nar­ra­tor’s youth, which form a pot­ted life story of sorts.

Rather than fo­cus­ing on the present, many pages are taken up out­lin­ing key events of our nar­ra­tor’s past: a close friend that died; his mar­bles get­ting


stolen by the school bully; fall­ing off the school flag­pole; fall­ing in love at first sight in mid­dle school; a love af­fair with an ac­tress; a brief jour­nal­ism ca­reer. Such events are told in a tone that shifts back and forth from sen­ti­men­tal­ity to en­nui. But they never seem to have much ef­fect on the nar­ra­tive ex­cept in an ob­vi­ous psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal sense; what hap­pened in the past has an im­pact in how we feel and think to­day. Not par­tic­u­larly pro­found stuff, and the book of­ten feels like you have chanced upon a con­fused young man’s di­ary rather than a fully formed novel. As the book’s ti­tle sug­gests, per­haps Han sim­ply wants to “talk to the world”, and this ef­fort per­haps en­tails a me­an­der­ing ther­a­peu­tic ex­er­cise. If so, we ought to wish Han well, but ask ques­tions of his pub­lish­ers.

If psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues are what’s being worked through here, then “women” cer­tainly seem to be a key theme. The nar­ra­tor strug­gles to go more than a dozen pages with­out ei­ther men­tion­ing his many sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, strug­gles with girl­friends, or lust for a par­tic­u­lar woman.

Early on we are told: “I’m a straight-ar­row guy who’s been to lots of towns and seen plenty of ho­tels that pro­vide sex­ual ser­vices, and I usu­ally pass af­ter gaz­ing through the peep­hole. I’ve let a cou­ple of them in but only be­cause they were knock­outs. My phi­los­o­phy has al­ways been, open­ing the door obliges me to ac­cept the ser­vice even if what comes in is a pig.” It all smacks of mind­less machismo, but hey, per­haps it is just locker-room talk on the part of the nar­ra­tor.

Later he tells us: “In the mean­time, I had been with many girls and been to bed with both the good and the not so good. But the re­la­tion­ships seemed to have be­come a pat­tern, and when I re­turned to that pat­tern, it didn’t seem to mat­ter what role I played or whether I did a good job.” It is prob­a­bly un­fair to note that Han fre­quently gloats about his “girl­friends” in real life; it may ir­ri­tate his wife, since this is fiction af­ter all, but it gets a lit­tle tire­some.

“For a man like me, who’s had no idea what he wants in life at any time, girls have been my only pur­suit, a tor­tur­ous pur­suit that even­tu­ally helped me un­der­stand the im­por­tance of set­ting a goal in life, be it a car, a house, a yacht, or an air­plane.”

There’s noth­ing wrong with a man writ­ing about his tra­vails with women, of course, but sadly Han is no Miller or Bukowski. In­stead, his writ­ing seems full of bland evo­ca­tions—there are no grand tit­il­lat­ing sex­ploits, no rat­tling of head­boards, and noth­ing that feels re­motely red-blooded. Just that con­stant dull re­frain, “I’ve had a lot of women, me.”

Though he does oc­ca­sion­ally hit the mark and is amus­ing on the sub­ject of in­fat­u­a­tion. “Treat­ing a girl as the sub­ject of a life­long as­pi­ra­tion is like let­ting some­one grab you by the balls. No mat­ter how tiny her hand is, she can squeeze so hard you’d wish you were dead…the curse, worse than the head-tight­en­ing ring on the Mon­key King in Jour­ney to the West, keeps you per­pet­u­ally on edge.”

Women aside, Han’s other great topic is the big one. What does it all mean? Why do we do what we do? And there is con­stant grasp­ing for res­o­nance here, but it all feels flimsy some­how. Mud­dled metaphors fail to land: “I have deep roots in this land. I once thought I was a seed blown this way and that by sea­sonal winds, but I came to re­al­ize that I wasn’t, that I was a plant with roots. Since, I couldn’t see my­self, I don’t know what kind of plant I was, and the only way to find out was to ask other plants.”

So, are we seeds, plants, or roots? It’s hard to say and Han’s nar­ra­tor cer­tainly doesn’t seem too sure.

But nev­er­the­less, time af­ter time, he in­sists on hav­ing a pop at what it all means. Un­for­tu­nately, it is al­ways veer­ing into faux ex­is­ten­tial pro­fun­dity. Here’s some ad­vice given to the nar­ra­tor’s pros­ti­tute muse: “My dear, life is not an abyss; it is the plans you have tra­versed on the high moun­tains you want to climb, like ev­ery bed we’ve slept on. You’ll never sink to the bot­tom. Maybe it doesn’t be­long to us, but it def­i­nitely be­longs to you. You think you are sink­ing, that you are feel­ing the pull of grav­ity, but it will never drag you all the way down, be­cause it wants you to get down on your hands and knees and lis­ten to its sounds. Once you’ve rested and lis­tened long enough, you’re free to get up. Do you un­der­stand?” One imag­ines the an­swer to this ques­tion is a sim­ple, “no, not re­ally”.

Han is by no means a bad writer, but 1988 feels di­rec­tion­less and has no end game. The book seems rooted in the au­thor’s nos­tal­gia, his yearn­ing to step back and re­live his past while fail­ing to fo­cus on the present, i.e. the road trip that fails to ad­e­quately an­chor the book. Back in 2000 when he made his de­but, Han gen­uinely spoke to his gen­er­a­tion, the bal­inghou, those that were born post-1980—bored and yearn­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent. He cap­tured the cares and zeit­geist of the ado­les­cents of his time, of­ten to sear­ing ef­fect. Call­ing him the “Spokesper­son for a Gen­er­a­tion” was not en­tirely un­fair. The prob­lem is, over 15 years later, that gen­er­a­tion has grown up, and it doesn’t quite feel like Han has.

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