Friday, January 11, 2013

Watering Heaven

"Anonymity was my secret identity.  I was lost in the sea of Beijing, a nonentity in the metaphor of a metropolis crammed with millions."
~The Buddha of Many Parts, Peter Tieryas Liu   


In The Buddha of Many Parts, the main characters, a man and a woman who meet by chance, are never named, and so they remain anonymous.  Both have their own reasons for living in Beijing, and seem to relish the freedoms that accompany anonymity in a very populous city.  Inspired by the story of the Buddha sculptor who sought to create physical perfection, the blond American woman living in Beijing focuses on the body parts of people, and having "fallen in love" with the man's fingers, wants to cast them in clay. 

Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu is a collection of twenty short stories, including The Buddha of Many Parts.  Published in 2012, the stories are set in various locations, mostly in Beijing, but also in other places including Bangkok and Los Angeles, and present numerous characters (some unnamed), in a variety of situations.  The stories that take place in China keenly depict Beijing and other locales, bringing them to life through descriptions of 'Worm Street', men playing xiangqi (Chinese chess), Changcheng (the Great Wall), assorted street vendors, kaoya (Peking Duck), and much more.

Dedicated to his wife, Angela, Watering Heaven features a lot of romance, which seems to be a refuge for the (young) protagonists, an escape from a world of detachment, superficiality, anxiety, and unpredictability.  In the first story,  Chronology of an Egg, the girl in the story, Sarah Chao, lays an egg every time she has sex.  This story is odd yet funny and compelling at the same time, a story that brings to mind the books of medical abnormalities I couldn't help but pore over, secretly, as a child.  Romance in a large city such as Beijing seems inevitable because of all the people out and about (perhaps it's  similar to NY in this way, where I grew up--romance was always handy); it offers some protection and diversion as well. These contemporary stories are set in present times and feature the technology of today, such as email and Facebook: how does modern technology affect romance?  In The Political Misconception of Getting Fired, the male protagonist, Byron Zhou, excitedly reconnects through Facebook with a girl he had a crush on in high school, June Guan, only to find out that they've both changed (he's no longer attracted to her).  This is a dauntless story for anyone who has ever wondered how a reunion through Facebook might turn out.

Other themes in this collection of stories have to do with jobs and working, and a hefty dose of job-related angst, failure, and dissatisfaction are in the mix, reminiscent of Kafka.  In some of the stories, characters are fleeing from jobs (and relationships) that are no longer satisfying.  In the story, Forbidden City Hoops, the main character, a collector of TV sets, is fleeing from his job as a photographer, which no longer seems fulfilling to him.  In another story, The Interview, the protagonist is let go from his current job for mistaking a masculine-looking female manager for a man.  An interview for a new job starts out very well--in fact, it's too good to be true.  Soon it becomes a dreadful nightmare when he's interrogated by a different manager and the questions become intensely personal; the entire encounter is extremely upsetting.  In the story 58 Deaths and Unrequited Love, filmmaker Larry Chao fails to achieve a successful career during his lifetime.  On the whole, the book stresses the importance of meaningful work and professional fulfillment, which are seen as worthwhile but difficult to achieve.  The author's edgy, exploratory voice and tone reflect more than a few unsettled feelings concerning jobs and working.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this collection of short fiction.  Each story is unique and imaginative, and not surprisingly, they've been featured in various literary publications and magazines, including Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA.  What I value most about these stories is their originality and inventiveness.  They seemed very creative and novel to me, strikingly different from anything else I've encountered in books. The format of the stories is also quite creative.  In the first story, Chronology of an Egg, the author gives dates and times of events within the story, as if he's writing a report.  Longer stories have numbered chapters, or at least sections within each story, while other stories, such as Colony, Unreflected, and The Death Artist, are very short (like longer flash fiction).

Peter Tieryas Liu's short fiction is fresh, distinct, and intelligent.  Watering Heaven presents situations that are sometimes surrealistic and often serious, but laced with humor and more than a bit of irony.  Although I just read these stories, I plan to reread at least some of them soon because they're so unusual, thought-provoking, and remarkable.

Special thanks to Peter Tieryas Liu for sending me a copy of Watering Heaven.  Your comments are welcome contributions to this review.

15 comments:

  1. I've come to enjoy short stories more. This sounds like a lovely collection to explore.

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  2. Wow, this sounds fantastic! I love short fiction when it's done well, and all these stories sound like they are perfectly formed little snippets of masterpiece! Thanks for your very reflective and thorough review on this one today! You make some great leaps of feeling and intuition that this book provoked in you. I am going to be looking for it!!

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  3. This does sound good, Peter Tieryas Liu stopped by my blog for a post recently and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed his work Suko! I like unique stories too.
    Have a nice weekend.

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    1. Naida, I remember the terrific interview you did with Peter. Thanks very much for stopping by.

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    2. Hi Naida! great to see your comment here! and thanks again for the interview, that was a lot of fun. Cheers.

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  4. Hey Suko- thanks for sharing... one of these days I will get finished slogging through my current to be read list to add new ones!!

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  5. Inventive stories set in big cities like Beijing and Bangkok and Los Angeles sound like a wonderful collection to have and read. I enjoyed your review.

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  6. Thank you for writing such a descriptive review! I loved it!

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    1. Thanks, Eriko. I think you'd really enjoy these stories--they're very unique--the kind of stories you'd study in a contemporary lit class.

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  7. These certainly sound different... the kind of stories that stay with you for a while.

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  8. Hi Suko, thank you for this wonderfully thoughtful review of Watering Heaven! I was honored to share these stories with you as they were a lot of fun to write. There's a Chinese folktale about a musician who could recreate the sounds of the weather through his instruments, and his greatest joy was finding a fellow musician who understood what he was trying to achieve. Really enjoy the reviews on the site and honored to be included among them. I also hope to see more of your MagPie Tales soon. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks, Peter! It was a pleasure to read your work!

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  9. This sounds like a great collection of short stories; I hope to read more shorts in 2013.

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  10. I just posted on this collection. I thought it a really brilliant depiction of a dark world, I see the pursuit of love you mention. I ran a word count on "love" and it came up 138 times in 221 pages-that is pretty high-lots of deaths and suicides and cubicle war stuff-I really enjoyed your review-I will be interviewing peter soon so if you have any ideas for questions please let me know

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    1. hey Mel, that's absolutely fascinating that 'love' came up 138 times. I didn't even realize that myself. Thanks for pointing it out!

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