The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke, review by Lauren Dalhaus
We meet the families Kong and Zhu at the outset of the book. Kong Mingliang, Mingguang, Mingyao, and Minghui are driven from their beds in the middle of the night in their teenage years at the demand of a ubiquitous dream dreamt by their parents, and each take a different route into the city to find their destiny. The first object that they encounter will determine their course in life. Mingliang encounters Zhu Ying and a ballot slip, and deciphers his fate as his eventual running for village leader, rather than choosing to interpret (or accept) the girl before him as his future. Zhu Ying, for her part, decides that she will be as successful as possible in order to bring Mingliang to his knees before her (she means this literally), and the battle between them to lead the village of Explosion to the forefront of the directive for economic advancement in the early 80's begins. With the help of Zhu Ying, who sees Kong Mingliang as her future husband and professional nemesis, he becomes village leader, and through a series of hyperbolic events, the Explosion's transformation becomes their central goal and the driving force that distorts the Kong and Zhu family in peculiar ways.
The essential pieces to grasp for the reasoning, the symbolism, and what is seemingly magical realism on overdrive, are best and quite explicitly described in the Author's Note at the back of the book. I wouldn't say that it would be unwise to read this before reading the book necessarily, but for times when the story seems to lag a bit because it keeps a steady pace of fantastically mundane events throughout, it may be prudent to flip back there, take a peek at the author's intent, and then go back to the story.
That being said, I feel that his intent to write a novel that is told in the mythorealist style, which we come to interpret as the psychology behind modern China, was brilliantly executed. Through the readings that I've done on China in the 21st century, some events are so completely absurd and almost unbelievably ridiculous (but uniformly accepted by the majority of the population, and supported and enacted with complete faith and diligence) that at a certain point, it makes sense why one idea begets a bizarre action; you simply believe, and it is so. The author argues that the idea of mythorealism isn't a "because of this, that" but something more akin to an unspoken radical acceptance of the nature of things, one that makes little sense if analyzed circumstantially.
"Mythorealism, meanwhile, captures a hidden internal logic contained in china's reality. It explodes reality, such that contemporary China's absurdity, chaos, and disorder- together with non-reaslism and illogicality- all become easily comprehensible."
As a great fan of magical realism, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a new spin on a well loved method of storytelling. Even more so, I recommend this as a necessary new piece of Chinese literature that presents a groundbreaking style which cannot be ignored.