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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Man Who Dammed
the Yangtze


by
Alex Kuo


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze



Title: The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze
Author: Alex Kuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 179 pages
Availability: The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze - US
The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze - UK
The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze - Canada
The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze - India
  • A Mathematical Novel

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Our Assessment:

B- : some decent ideas and bits, but doesn't come together

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Kirkus Reviews . 1/6/2011 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "The mathematical novel merges with the hydrodynamics novel. There is no plot, but there is a point of view, a humanist aversion to the arrogance of power, whether implemented by corporations or the state. The meta-fictional quirks, when the veil separating author and reader disappears, donít amount to much. (...) A sterile account of parallel lives." - Kirkus Reviews

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze features two protagonists, one living in China, the other in the United States, and in not quite alternating chapters recounts bits of their lives -- which move in some parallel -- from 1968 on. Both are mathematicians who attended renowned institutions: Ge is a Qinghua University graduate, while G (actually: Gregor) has a degree from MIT. Both then took teaching positions in fairly remote corners of their worlds: Ge in Changchun (which is "north of North Korea"), and G in Wisconsin -- but in 1968 it is hard to escape the tumultuous times, which catch up with both them.
       In China the Cultural Revolution -- with its crazed teenage hooligan/ideologues -- is beginning to encroach even on Changchun, while Wisconsin also starts seeing student protests. This is a time when Ge is asked to become the faculty advisor for the newly-recognized Black Student Union, since he's the "closest to being colored": there's one other Chinese-American faculty member, and not a single black one.
       Both G and Ge are displeased by the stifling authoritarian system around them, and both leave academia. G certainly had enough of it:

     When he left the meeting he thought about those students, and how the country's intellectuals, including its teachers, are entrusted with propping up the entire middle class, perpetuating a vast infrastructure built on everything it has co-opted. These are their pissant children he has to teach. How can he teach them anything when they don't even know who they are ?
       So he goes to work for ... Westinghouse.
       From early in the novel the Chinese super-dam project that would eventually become the Three Gorges Dam is a topic, and Ge eventually goes to work on the project; both G and Ge are shocked by some of the numbers on this project, and how these are treated, seeing dangers in this monstrosity (and how it is being built).
       Subtitled A Mathematical Novel, The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze includes a few equations and the odd drawing -- and the occasional passage such as:
     G looks after her in the beautiful October Wisconsin sunlight, wondering if he's missed some shortcut in the logic of her remark, determined he's going to work it out himself by transforming it into a linear Diophantine equation, hoping there won't be a congruency problem in the remainder.
       But on the whole there's relatively little such applied maths applied here. Indeed, Kuo tries out quite a few things in how he presents his narrative -- one chapter consists almost entirely of a list of a hundred or so arrested students, and the Wisconsin jails they were brought to; elsewhere a bridge game is diagrammed -- though too often there doesn't seem to be quite enough purpose to these variations. Eventually, he also pulls down the curtain between reader and narrative:
But Whoa ! you say, wait a minute here, interrupting this otherwise seamless narrative.
       And, near the end, he also addresses the reader: "And you, reader, what about you ?"
       All this could work -- and in spots it does -- but as a whole the narrative remains misshapen and somewhat unwieldy. The twin paths of G and Ge -- which do eventually meet up at the vanishing point that is the book's conclusion -- are a decent idea, but the mix of message and story is never evenly balanced. A creative approach to the presentation of parts of Kuo's message isn't quite enough to overcome the feeling that each bit of the story is constructed for little other purpose than to present a message; there are some decent character insights, but little development or depth.
       Of some interest, but only intermittently successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 August 2011

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Links:

The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: Reviews: Alex Kuo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Alex Kuo was born in Boston but spent most of his childhood and youth in China and Hong Kong.

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© 2011 the complete review

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