Time spent off the beaten track in Henan Province, China, gave me insights to the cities of Zhengzhou and Jiaozuo. That travel led to a packed notebook, and resulted in both places being used as locations in Monkey Steals Plum.
This year the two cities have been in the (Chinese) news as they have been connected by a new, super-fast train link that shrinks the time (better than halves the time) without shortening the distance between them.
The super-fast train line provides a useful metaphor for any intrepid reader that journeys into Monkey Steals Plum… because laced within the narrative are are many threads that indelibly link characters, dichotomies, conflicts, and so on.
The book is, arguably, a ‘niche’ read of contemporary (literary) fiction. It conjures with competing ideas, themes, narrative threads and -in equal measure- straightforward storytelling. In a word, it has “duality” (a word that has its place in Literature, Maths, Physics and beyond).
There are two main places (not ignoring ‘Space’) in the book: China and the UK. Various locations in both countries are used: the north and south of China are off-set; while Manchester and Salford (not forgetting a particular pocket enclave of Cheshire) are wrung out in Troy’s love-hate relationship with the ‘twin cities’.
Various dichotomies are explored between characters: the obsessive, impassioned Capitalist Chinese billionaire and the cynical, dispassionate Socialist from Salford, UK; between the science and art; between ‘how’ and ‘why’, and so on.
Ditto for the divisions of antinomy (or conflicts of authority) running through the book: civilisation/wilderness; solipsism/knowledge; the past/the future; the privacy of Feng – the man, his business interests, his deep truths – versus the prying eye of the photojournalist, Troy.
There are two halves to the book – something of a pivotal moment occurs around half way. The tempo of the action shifts.
There is a protagonist yet not quite a singular role – other characters steal the editorial viewpoint for insights and pivotal moments. Again these are literary devices that, I hope, have been wielded well yet (to echo a qualification from earlier posts) that is always up to each reader.
There are two loves in Feng’s heart; there are two ‘plums’ in his mind. There are two ‘steals’ or incidents of kidnap. In terms of key scenes there are a lot of so-called ‘two-handers’ between particular characters… and the dialogue even contains talk of Yin and Yang.
Of course, there are two sides to every story… at the very least.