An explosion. Bam. Then, a rushing sensation. Your ears whistle. Your cheeks flap wildly in the wind. Thousands of faces whoosh past. You have just enough time to utter a clench-teethed prayer to whatever deity you happen to believe in, but not enough time to see whether it's been answered. Everything turns hot white. Then everything goes black. And if you're lucky, you'll wake up a moment later to find you've landed safely, ass-first, back in the fake leather sofa in your living room. If you're not, some poor cab driver is going to have an international incident on his hands.
Walking around a Chinese metropolis is no less disorienting to me. It's like being shot out of a cannon on the moon. Slower, yes. But you're still being shot out of a goddamned cannon.
I am a man who feels truly overmatched in most cities, even lowly Omaha. The crush of people and cars puts me in a kind of autistic trance, where words and emotions elude me and all I can do is gawk and grunt. But downtown Nanchong overwhelms me completely, pushes me past the point of annoyance or frustration, beyond organized thought or linear perception. My nervous system keeps me walking and breathing. But my brain gives up making sense out of its surroundings. The world comes in fits and starts, in the form of isolated images stripped of context, like slides projected onto a blank white wall.
A child dropping a deuce into a sewer grate. A heaping vat of glazed duck livers behind a red-tinted storefront window. A blast of sparks. A tornado of soot churning up into the air. A white dog and a black dog sniffing each others' behinds, spinning around in an unending yin-yang of anuses and cold noses. A loogey. Another loogey. A young woman in a flowerprint dress perched sidesaddle on the back of a moped with one leg crossed over the other at the ankle, just so. An elderly Chinese peasant woman sporting a Tina Turner 'do. Toy poodles for sale. Toy handguns for sale. Sex toys for sale. A man walking a live praying mantis down the street on a string, not for sale. A gang of young children stomping on a sheet of Styrofoam until the flakes are caught up by the wind and sent flurrying off into traffic. A man standing with his woman backed into a corner, the flat of his hand poised in midair en route to the side of her face. A heckler. Another heckler. Across the way, one of the guys at the Muslim noodle joint spots me. We make eye contact, and he winks. But I don't know how to wink. So I blink and keep walking. A minor bicycle accident. A crowd gathers. A major car accident. A crowd gathers. Bargain bin umbrellas for sale. A crowd gathers. I stop walking for a moment because I no longer know where I am walking. A crowd gathers.
There is a restaurant downtown that I like to go to. The owners are a gruff, not-from-around-here husband and wife duo who don't give a shit that I am a foreigner, and couldn't give two shits if I patronized their restaurant or not. They are about as welcoming as a couple of tranquilized lizards. And that's how I like my service in this country. Surly and distant. The restaurant is almost always empty. So it gets my business.
It is a small restaurant, not much bigger than my living room, and the walls are thin, so the roar of the Big Red Machine is never quite far off. But after a year, I no longer notice the noise. The noise I can deal with. It is solitude I crave, the ability to sit down and read, undisturbed, in some dank shithole with a lukewarm plate of grub and a lukecold bottle of beer, sequestered from the whole sensory barrage raging just outside the window.
On Friday night, I swung by the restaurant and ordered fried eggs with diced tomato. And a beer. While I waited, I took out my Norton Anthology of American Literature and flipped it open at random. I landed on Hemingway. I read. And after a while, I said aloud: "Huh."
Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent ... He was very hungry.
"Huh," I said again.
The fried eggs showed up. The owner kind of frisbeed the dish at me. Then came the beer. The eggs weren't so hot. The beer wasn't all that cold. Nothing was good enough, but it was good enough for me. I resumed reading.
"Nick drank the coffee ... The coffee was bitter."
"He was sleepy. He felt sleep coming."
"He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading."
I laughed and looked out the window. Then I looked back down at the book. Then I laughed again. What was I reading? Where the hell had it come from? What time, what place? Sparse and economical, but vivid; understated and confident. Hemingway, in short. And yet - I looked back out the window. Something clicked.
How in the blue fuck could anyone write like that - about a place like this?
How to write The Heming Way about somewhere so profoundly Pynchonesque?
How does a writer remain sparse and economical in the extravagant modern fairyland of bullshit? Remain understated and confident in the age of festering neuroses?
No idea, I shrugged. I'd already finished my eggs, and the beer. So I ordered another bottle. The owner had no opinion. He couldn't give three shits how much of my money I gave him, and wouldn't give four shits if I stayed there reading 'til the restaurant closed.
I imagined Hemingway in China. How would he write this place?
"The boy needed to pee. The boy ran out to the sidewalk to pee. He peed. It felt good to pee."
"The students saw the man. The man was a foreigner. They liked to shout at the foreigner. They shouted at the foreigner."
"The old man wanted to spit. He liked to spit. He spat. It was a very good feeling."
Hemingway. I like the guy. He is good. During undergrad, I drank heavily from the wineskin of Hemingway's prose. He was once the ideal I aspired to. Back then, all adjectives were four-letter words to me. And adverbs were the kind of four-letter words that'd get you smacked. And abstractions? Shee-it. For a wishy-washy noun like "essence," the Minimalist Mafia would cut you up in a back alley and dump you into the Missouri for fish food.
But concreteness seems heavyhanded to me now, as I try to write about a place where complexity and ambiguity and chaos are the primary players. Where the characters don't follow narrative arcs, but dance the frenzied jig of breakneck consumerism. A place where what little clarity to be found is in my own 1500 cubic centimeters of skull space, and all else is fog, and people, and more people, and too much fog to tell the too-many-people apart.
Aw, hell, I grunted. What do I know? It's Friday night. No time for this. I closed the book and, like a good Norton Anthology hardcover should, it thumped shut like a drum. I got up to pay my tab. The owners told me how much and I paid them that much, and they didn't say thank you, so I didn't say I was welcome. I turned to leave, then I turned back around because I had to pee.
"Do you have a bathroom?" I asked.
The woman pointed into the kitchen, and the man pointed where she pointed.
The bathroom was in the back of the kitchen, behind a plywood door hanging off its hinges like a loose tooth. I nudged open the door with my elbow and the ammonia peeled my eyes like a couple of grapes. The toilet, as you might expect, was a squatter, and it was filthy.
But I really had to pee. I pulled down my pants to pee. I peed. It felt good to pee.