The Banquet Bug
By Geling Yan
The protagonist, Dan Dong, a simple man from a village, accidentally stumbles into a corporate-sponsored banquet, where he finds out he can get paid to eat delicacies that only the rich elite of the nation get to enjoy. Enamored with the luxurious food and easy money, he decides to fake being a reporter, coming up with a dummy business cards and reporter credentials. Unfortunately, with such wide disparities between the have's and the have-not's in Chinese society, the poor and powerless start to demand that he use his position as a reporter to write about their situations and speak out against the corruption that cripples them.
Dan is a simple-minded character, who is simply unable to control any of the situations he gets into, simply because those around
him are more ruthless, smart, passionate, demanding and/or political than him. In this respect, it captures how a Westerner might initially feel when living in China, where the culture is more relationship-focused and where situations can get complex quickly. Dan does get into situations, where construction workers go unpaid for their work, where real-estate moguls fleece buyers of their money without finishing their purchased condos, where sex-workers struggle for money, all while the rich and powerful enjoy rare delicacies at banquets, so this does seem like a somewhat broadly accurate depiction of China in the recent past and now.
My problem really was the lack of depth to the characters. Dan is an exagerratedly passive, spineless and not that
bright cartoon character. Other characters play out stereotypical roles - a ruthless, hard nosed reporter, a sex worker with a heart of gold, a demure wife, etc. If this novel was purely for entertainment, the lack of characterization might be less noticeable. But when trying to point out social injustices, it felt like when a comic-book like the X-Men tried to address serious issues. It's feels a bit clumsy and it's difficult take the issues serious with such broad writing.
All in all, I made it through the novel, but I'm not sure I'm much more enlightened after reading it.
Note: this was Yan's first novel in English, which is not her native language. Certainly, that is an impressive feat by itself and I'm a little curious to pick up one of her novels that she wrote in Chinese and was translated to see, whether or not language was partially the issue.