The People’s Republic of Desire, Annie Wang
Divorce, oral sex, plastic surgery. Indulging in a Starbucks coffee, admitting to the emotional repercussions of a one-night stand, giggling over watching pornography. These once taboo subjects have become the substance of daily conversations and practices among urban women in contemporary Beijing. It seems that no one remembers what happened at Tianmen Square in 1989.
...REPUBLIC OF DESIRE
A cross between “Sex and the City” and The Joy Luck Club, The People’s Republic of Desire follows four sassy gals as they preen and pounce among Beijing’s westernized professional class, exultantly obsessed with brand names, celebrity, and sex.
Not learning my lesson about buying chick lit books with pink covers (ahem, Something Borrowed), I torpedoed to the bookstore cashier with my latest girlish and frightfully light read clutched to my chest. Last time I had purchased a pink-covered novel, I had been driven insane by the stress of highlighted textbooks and university exams. But this time I had no excuse, outside of book-purchasing giddiness (and possible drunkenness). I simply wanted something shallow and fun, and The People’s Republic of Desire, in all its pink and scandalously titled glory, would give me my fix.
The back of the novel offers high praise for Wang. She has a ”promising future as a fiction writer,” raves The Chicago Tribune. “A striking new literary voice,” enthuses The Los Angeles Times. And in Wang’s short bio, we’re told that this literary whiz published her first short story at fourteen, and her first novel, Lili, received extraordinary reviews. These liberally printed quotes were obviously not a response to The People’s Republic of Desire – Wang’s second effort leaves a lot to be desired. When the write-up in the back of your novel is the most interesting part of the book, there’s a big problem.
The novel follows the lives of narrator Niuniu, her three best friends, and all the acquaintances, lovers, and family that come into their circle. Niuniu refers to herself as a “returnee” – or, as locals like to say, a “fake foreign devil” – a Chinese American-born child who eventually returns to China to live. Niuniu is fashionable, independent, and sophisticated, which is not a big surprise given that everyone in this novel is at least two of the above. Niuniu is not unlike another single, blonde-haired heroine who writes for a newspaper and sips martinis with her three best friends in the Big Apple. Beibei, a childhood friend, is president of a PR firm that represents the best and brightest entertainers in China. She has an open marriage and loves to take on younger lovers. Beibei is not unlike another uncommitted, blonde-haired heroine who loves sexual independence and works for a PR company in the Big Apple. Lulu, Niuniu’s other childhood friend, has been in love with a seedy, married artist for the past several years, and is content trading in security and comfort for passion and desire. Lulu is not unlike another single, brown-haired heroine who is naïve and constantly searching for love in the Big Apple. CC, one of Niuniu’s newest friends, is a spoiled princess who loves the western lifestyle and has an English boyfriend. Perhaps not one to toy with copyright issues, CC is not like Miranda at all.
The length of the book belies the novel’s chapter intervals, which are often short and concise. Wang frequently switches from linear storytelling to tedious tangents about Jeremy Irons (“The Tragic Love of Jeremy Irons”), the preferred aesthetics of the Chinese-born (“Women in China”), the status symbol of Starbucks (“Culture, with a Bitter Aftertaste”), the intricacies of chat rooms (“SARS Wars”), or the shopping habits of the Chinese nouveau riche (“Tonics and Perfume”). These often clumsy segue ways read like clinical studies, and have a hard time holding interest or bringing cohesiveness to the novel’s flimsy plot.
All of Niuniu’s friends live, love, and learn in Beijing as they navigate the testy waters of sex, romance, and career. There is little progression of character development from start to finish (unless you count the innumerable break-ups that seem to define these women), but when Wang hits her stride (which is not very often), the story thrives. Snippets can prove to be humorous (“A Sweet Note of Passion”), reflective (“A Cool Mother”), and redeemable (“The Little Women’s Club”). Even Niuniu, who is one of the blandest protagonists to narrate a story ever, is somewhat sympathetic by the book’s end. Unfortunately, this would bear more weight had any of the other women in this story done little more than just whine, bitch, and discuss their latest trivial crises.
But the biggest problem with The People’s Republic of Desire is Wang’s detached narrative tone, which never allows the reader to fully sympathize with any of her characters. Wang is excruciatingly repetitive – more than halfway through the novel, she has Beibei tell us again, and awkwardly, that she is in an open marriage and enjoys sex with anyone who is not her husband. Furthermore, the book as a whole reads as an uninspired mess. Her characters lack a distinctive voice, and the dialogue flows as well as a badly translated foreign film. In “The Tragic Love of Jeremy Irons,” Wang describes the fan club that Niuniu has set up for Jeremy Irons, and brands Niuniu a Ricky Martin fan (which, under many circumstances, I cannot condone). She even goes as far as telling us about the demographics of the Jeremy Irons club members (like we asked), and spends several paragraphs describing the films of Jeremy Irons, and the merits and allure of the actor himself. I don’t have anything against Jeremy Irons, but then again, I’m not exactly keen on reading about his fan club, you know? During the discussion of all things Jeremy Irons, Wang has Lulu weirdly exposition, “But what type of love doesn’t hurt? I’ve had three abortions for love!” And just so we know what kind of woman she is, Wang has Samant- er, Beibei, sass her friends with, “Women really don’t need to have money. With the right look at the right time, and with just the right amount of leg or cleavage showing, a woman can have any man she wants! The rich, the mighty, and even the hot-looking waiter!” Would this be considered some form of post-feminism?
The People’s Republic of Desire is touted as being a cross between “Sex and the City” and The Joy Luck Club, which are both appealing works of fiction in their own right. Only half of that sentence rings true in this tome; there are elements of “Sex and the City” that readers will familiarize themselves with, but outside of an all-female Asian cast of lead characters, there is little semblance to the sensitive cultural and generational undertones found in The Joy Luck Club. Wang briefly touches on the generational and cultural hurdles her heroines endure, but never gets her feet wet enough to satisfyingly explore how these women come to be shaped by their dual experiences in both eastern and western worlds. More frustrating is finding that Wang’s preface is written with eloquent and honest, down-to-earth sentiments that her novel sorely lacks. Even as a light read, The People’s Republic of Desire fails miserably. ¤ C.Ho.
THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE: (out of 5)