Book of the month: Maggie Shen King

Wedding Parade

A few months ago, to celebrate the publication of the new UK edition of Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country, I ran a giveaway. The terms of entry were simple: all those who wanted the chance to receive a signed copy simply had to leave a comment recommending me a book.

The response was wonderful and it was great to receive input from readers all over the planet, just as I did when I first set out to read the world in 2012. The suggestions were as intriguing as they were varied and will no doubt keep me busy for some time. However, they have already yielded some cracking reads and my last book of the month of 2022 is one of them, put forward by Lauren.

As its title implies, An Excess Male by Taiwanese-American author Maggie Shen King is built around imagining a world in which there are too many men. Set in an authoritarian, near-future mainland China, it envisions a society where the gender-selection practices driven by directives such as the one-child policy (but also at play in countries like India) have skewed the ratio of women to men so drastically that government-sanctioned polyandry is instituted in order to give as many men as possible the opportunity to marry and reproduce.

The novel focuses on one family in the process of interviewing for a third husband – ‘going to the max’ as it’s known in the world of the book. Told variously through the eyes of the prospective suitor Wei-guo, wife May-ling, and her two existing husbands, brothers Hann and XX, the narrative explores the experience of being trapped in a system that controls and subverts basic human needs and desires, exposing numerous secrets along the way.

Essentially, this book is about finding a way to say the unsayable, and live an authentic life in the face of the systematic stripping of human dignity and autonomy. As with Crystal Boys, my 2012 Taiwanese read, homosexuality (which was only declassified as a mental illness in China in 2001) becomes a shorthand for this. In the world of the novel, men who love men are known as ‘wilfully sterile’ and are sent for re-education, as well as denied various rights.

The speculative, near-future setting is also a powerful tool. By creating a society that does not quite exist, Shen King is able to express criticisms, depict hypocrisy and portray tensions much more directly and tellingly than a realist novel would allow. As Megan Walsh argues in her brilliant book, The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why it Matters, sci-fi has been especially successful in mainland China partly because of the wiggle room it allows authors – it’s no coincidence that Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, became the first novel to be a bestseller both at home and abroad. For an author like Shen King, raised in a territory that has not been allowed to assert its sovereignty on the global stage for decades, the attraction is clear.

Yet any reader who interprets An Excess Male purely as a criticism of China’s approach to Taiwan is missing a great deal. Many of the anxieties around surveillance and the intrusion of technology into private relationships find their echo in contemporary anglophone society. The same can be said of various approaches to categorising and labelling people, and thereby limiting their freedoms and opportunities. The fact, for example, that being placed on a mental-health watchlist is seen as the first step towards being excluded from mainstream society resonates uncomfortably with many practices in the so-called Free World. Much as many anglophone readers might like to, we cannot get away with simply branding China as the villain here: there are problems to address in our societies too.

This subtlety is also evident in the writing and in the way the story plays out. As the best dystopian fiction tends to do, the novel reveals flashes of beauty in brokenness. Suffocating though it is, the tightly controlled system of polyandry allows for closeness and even whole kinds of intimacy unknown in more liberal societies; the fraternal bond between some co-husbands, for example, is a touching and sustaining thing, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. There are also some lovely touches in the writing, such as the foreign nuns who appear at one point, speaking a kind of accented language riddled with the habits usually associated with Chinese stereotypes. XX’s perspective, as a character on the autism spectrum, is also, for the most part, deftly handled.

The result is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Drawing on her intimate knowledge of both Taiwanese and US society, Shen King creates a story that neatly bridges the gap between the two. In so doing, she brings readers everywhere face to face with one of the most fundamental human dilemmas: how to survive when your personal needs go against what is perceived to be the greater good.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (Harper Voyager, 2017)

Picture: ‘Wedding Parade’ by Cormac Heron on flickr.com