Sunday, February 21, 2010

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler

Full disclosure: I've known Pete since I was a freshman in college and he was a sophomore. He also once stopped me from being run over by a car with a timely "head's up."

As with his first two books, this is a great read--funny and informative and thoughtful. And as with his last book, Oracle Bones, it's interesting to see how he finds a way to take disparate magazine articles and turn them into a reasonably cohesive book. One of the things I noticed this time is how the book is being sold more as a Peter Hessler book than as a book about driving in China. His name is above the title and in red...And most interstingly, it's described as the last in the trilogy of Pete's books on China. I have to assume this is because he's ready to move on to new subjects (or even genres) and so is declaring early: the next book you see is going to be something different. It's not a strategy I've noticed before, but it makes sense: you can get pigeonholed by your success and this could be a way to build anticipation for whatever new thing Pete will do as well as a way to declare to his publisher and his public, this is it for the China stuff.

A couple of notes on the writing. One of the mistakes I see writers make when taking on cultures outside of their own is they are either too romantic or too condescending. Ah look at the poverty of Africa portrayed so lyrically and tragically. Or ah listen to how funny those wacky Vietnamese are. But this book uses humor really well without being condescending, and it definitely never romanticizes. (One reason is Pete lived in China for something like nine years, so naturally he's better able to convey the place than someone who just spent their junior year abroad). But, of course, Chinese bureaucracy can be funny and of course there are funny things that happen when an American journalist goes to live among Chinese peasants. So how does he convey that? Aside from the fact that Pete often positions himself as the object of humor, and that he fully characterizes the Chinese men and women in the book so that when they do something funny it's not a caricature, for the most part the book uses language as an object of humor as opposed to using people as an object of humor. My favorite examples are the quotes from the Chinese written driver's exam threaded throughout the opening section: "True/False: In a taxi, it's fine to carry a small amount of explosive material". And Pete's also very good at using his own quirks of language to add humor. Instead of holding out a thumb, Chinese hitchhikers bounce their hands up and down when looking for a ride, and to Pete this looks like they are petting an invisible dog. So throughout the book, he'll use that phrase "petting the dog" so that you see how the action is funny through his eyes-it reminds us that he's the foreign and strange one, not them. Another nice trick of language is that when referring to the car he rents and drives all over Mongolia he uses its brand name--the City Special--repeatedly so that the car itself gets a personality. Similarly when he gets lost due to the mismarkings on the Chinese maps--called Sinomaps--he says that he has been "Sinomapped" into sand or "Sinomapped" to a dry creek bed. It's a good reminder that attention to language--no matter your genre--is always going to be a good thing.

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