October 10, 2020: “Further News of Defeat” by Michael X. Wang

Satuday’s all right, Story366!

Today, the family and I took a day trip up to Harry S. Truman State Park. We got a late start, but still traveled about a hundred miles, each way, just to discover a new place, hike a different trail, and get a stamp in our Missouri State Park book. Truman State Park, like all of Missouri’s state parks we’ve visited, is pristine, beautiful woods surrounded a waterfront, plenty to do on land and on sea. We stopped at a place on the way home, in Warsaw, Missouri—Sto lat!—called The Dam Restaurant, and the boys got a big kick out of that. Heck, we did, too, making dam jokes (a joke executed well in Vegas Vacation) while we waited for our food. We were gone for only five hours, but it felt like we accomplished a good weekend in that span with some fresh air, some family conversation, a little exercise, a nice meal, and seeing something we hadn’t before. We might not know what a perfect Saturday is, but we had something close to that, I suspect, today.

Today I read from Further News of Defeat, the 2020 collection from Autumn House by Michael X. Wang. I’ve read a story or two, here and there, from Wang before, so I was happy to get my hands on this full collection, to read a few one after another, the way I like it.

The title story, “Further News of Defeat,” takes place in a small Chinese village during the Japanese occupation. The story starts with a nine-year-old girl named San finding a Chinese soldier passed out in mud at the edge of the village. She fetches her father, who has to fetch the village chief for help, which comes in the form of BuDan, a young man who is kind of the town ox, the largest man who does all the heavy lifting. He and San’s father pull the passed-out soldier to a barn, where the revive him with some soup and slaps to the face.

The young soldier was exhausted, running the countryside and warning of the advancing Japanese army. The soldier doesn’t have any advice, doesn’t have any good news—his job is to merely warn a town, then move on to the next. So, the Japanese are coming.

Four days later, they arrive. At first, it seems tolerable (relative to what’s to come), as all the villagers have to do is line up every morning and count off. If someone’s missing, the person before and after them are shot. For a week, this works out, nobody missing the roll.

A certain lieutenant shows up one day, however, and says he needs volunteers for the local mine. When no one volunteers, the Japanese soldiers pick every tenth man in line; it’s highly implied that once these men leave, they’ll never be seen in the village again. San’s father is almost chosen, but a young Japanese soldier whom San calls Pointy intervenes, saves her father. BuDan’s father has to go, however, along with thirty other men.

Things only go downhill from there, the specter of the Japanese, able to return at any time, hanging over the village. Sure enough, they come back, particularly after BuDan slits a Japanese soldier’s throat. That same lieutenant who stole all those men from the mine wants to know who did it. When no one fesses up, he says that the entire village must go searching for the culprit, who must have escaped. First, however, they must line up at the well to fetch water for their journey.

I won’t tell you what happens next, but as you might guess, things don’t go well for San, BuDan, and their village. The story is based on a historical event, the Nanjing Massacre, but that was a much larger-scale event, to note. Wang tells a powerful story here, an important one, and I’m glad I read it.

“The Whole Story of a Tugboat Captain on the Suzhou River” is the story of Yang, a tugboat captain who is a favorite amongst the locals because he carries toys around and gives them to the kids; he also lets teenagers have drinking and smoking parties on his boat when he’s docked. The story is told as a series of questions and answers, an italicized question about Yang, such as “Why does Yang like to play with toys?” followed by a few paragraphs of background info, usually in the form of an anecdote. This methodology tells us his entire life story (as the title suggests), including how he became a tugboat captain, why he’s never married, and how he deserted from the Communist Army and never saw his parents again. Oh, and he finds a hand in the river, too, and helps the police solve the murder.

“At This Moment, In This Place,” is about Paul Hwang, a physics instructor whose wife was killed in a car accident, along with the two youngest of their three sons. Paul, who had lost touch with the oldest boy, Jeremy, for changing his major from biology to history at Yale, doesn’t want to tell Jeremy about the accident, so he doesn’t. The funeral comes and when people ask why Jeremy isn’t there, Paul tells them Jeremy has decided not to come, that he’s making his own choices. Time passes, and Paul still can’t bring himself to call his one remaining son, to give him this terrible news, hoping he’ll find out on his own and not speak to him. The situation is forced, however, when Jeremy calls, asking to speak to his mother, and Paul has to either tell him, or extend his silence.

I very much enjoyed my time with Further News of Defeat, Michael X. Wang’s debut collection. These stories, about Chinese and Chinese-Americans, reveal a specific perspective on love, loss, tragedy, and triumph. The characters seem to face drastic choices, and because he’s a good storyteller, Wang doesn’t lead them down the right paths, knowing there’s a much better tale down the wrong turn. This is a solid 2020 entry, and certainly will be in the running for my best-of list when everything sorts itself out.