~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.
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.