American readers are probably more familiar with Chinese literature via novels that focus through a romantic or historical lens; Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing is apparently meant as a kind of antidote, intended to give readers a glimpse of gritty contemporary Chinese life. In some ways, it succeeds, as it follows twentysomething Dunhuang’s release from prison (for selling fake IDs) into a new illegal career (selling pirated DVDs). Dunhuang is neither homeless nor settled, happy to live with whomever he’s sleeping with, or to rent a shared dorm room or a cheap shack. His Beijing is filled with students and police and other illegal entrepreneurs, everybody looking out for themselves.
The reader is introduced to Dunhuang as he’s released from prison, and he immediately meets a woman, Xiaorong, who he gets drunk with and sleeps with. From there, Dunhuang wanders between women whose only real purpose is to fuck and be fucked; he also smokes cigarettes, watches The Bicycle Thief, and sells pirated DVDs. This bare bones plot might work if it took place against a sharper image of urban Beijing life, but whether that snapshot got blurred in the original or in translation, it’s still too grainy to be satisfying. And Zechen’s dialogue is functional at best; it contributes to neither characterization nor plot, serving only as a dull exposition, keeping things moving forward, but just barely.
It’s unclear whether The Bicycle Thief, which is name-dropped throughout the book, is a faulty metaphor or simply a literary accident. It’s partly this lack of intention that cripples the book—it’s easy to think that this movie might mean something to the story, but it’s never clear what it might mean. When Dunhuang needs a bike to get to one of his regular clients, a mysterious woman who only buys horror DVDs, he finds another peddler of illegal merchandise, a “secondhand” bicycle seller. A bit of clunky dialogue and some uninspired exposition put a stolen bike in Dunhuang’s hands:
“It looks exactly like the bike we looked at earlier,” Dunhuang said.
“Looks like?” the man said with a chuckle. “It is. It’s just got a new lock, that’s all.”
Indeed, the lock was the only difference. At noon it had had two good-quality locks on it; now it just had a cheap wheel-lock. “This is no good,” said Dunhuang. “What if someone recognizes it?”
“Fuck, the country’s full of bikes exactly like this one,” said the suit. “Who’s going to recognize it? You’re worried? Okay then.” he took a little knife out of his pocket and started scratching at the bike, until there were paint chips all over the ground. “Better?”
With his new bike, Dunhuang is able to get to the woman, who remains secretive both to Dunhuang and the reader, and on whom he repeatedly tries to foist The Bicycle Thief. There’s clearly no poetry here—but neither is the text a facile and minimalist work, operating with the speed of an illegal entrepreneur. It’s heavy in the wrong places and light in other wrong places, forming an entire novel with some working parts that just aren’t connected to one another.
Although Dunhuang maintains inexplicably close ties with friends he was jailed with, his other relationships are largely disposable: One woman leads to another leads to another, and though he occasionally professes concern for one, they are mostly stock characters as he chain-smokes and peddles pirated DVDs in sand-swept Beijing. It would be one thing if these characters and relationships were grounded by a gripping plot, or a vivid snapshot, but it’s all just as colorless as Beijing is after a sandstorm.