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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Playing for Thrills

Wang Shuo

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To purchase Playing for Thrills

Title: Playing for Thrills
Author: Wang Shuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 325 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Playing for Thrills - US
Playing for Thrills - UK
Playing for Thrills - Canada
Herzklopfen heißt das Spiel - Deutschland
  • Chinese title: 玩儿的就是心跳
  • Translated by Howard Goldblatt

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Our Assessment:

B- : creative but dizzying and ultimately too messy

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Playing for Thrills begins as a more or less straightforward murder mystery: the narrator, Fang Yan returning home to find some policemen waiting for him. They ask him some questions about what he believes are innocuous events a decade ago, but it turns out that the beheaded body of one of the people he was with back then, Gao Yang, has been found and they're conducting an investigation. The first conversation is fairly casual, but Fang quickly figures out that he is the prime suspect.
       Fang Yan -- and most of his friends -- are ne'er-do-wells, getting by somehow and enjoying life without worrying too much about anything. They waste their time playing cards for hours on end, drink, pick up lots of women. Fang has been at this for quite a while, and his memory is a bit hazy (though actually he and many of the others remember much about those decade-old events surprisingly well). Trying to piece together what happened the last time he saw Gao Yang isn't that easy: he can't quite remember, and the friends he seeks out to get the full story don't always help make the picture clearer. Indeed, he's surprised to learn that he was preoccupied at the time, head over heels in love.
       The noose tightens, and Fang even packs his things and is ready to turn himself in, but but then chases down more clues from the past. Things weren't and aren't quite what they seem (starting with the murder victim) and it turns out he and his buddies from back then enjoyed wilder times than he recalled. At the time, as one of them says: "Playing for thrills is what it's all about."
       The mystery-thriller aspect of the novel drives it along a good way, but what Wang is really doing is describing a milieu and a generation, giving a close-up look at a different slice of contemporary (well, late 1980s) China. His characters grew up under the Cultural Revolution and were in the military just after. They aren't devoted to Party or country, aren't dutiful citizens. When they were young they got by how they could, including petty crime (taking advantage of foreign tourists and peddling clothes (when it was still illegal; that, like much else, is tolerated by the time the police come after Fang)). There are more opportunities now, and they aren't quite as reckless, but these are no pillars of society. And some of them -- though not Fang -- are dangerous too.
       Wang is playful in his description, with some clever literary humour (Fang is often introduced as a writer by his fiends, with other authors' books ascribed to him) and other references. And the book is also a literary game: proceeding fairly straightforwardly at first, the chapter numbers eventually switch to a countdown of days, and the conclusion is one of almost complete artifice ("The author appears to be reluctant to lay down his pen" ..., etc.).
       It's an ambitious China-panorama on offer, surprisingly far-ranging and creative in how it is presented. The identity-confusion, hazy memories, and dreamy sequences make it a bit more arduous reading than one might hope for, but what really drags the books down is its pacing: it skips around too slowly, with too much boring (if not always pointless) talk (though some of this may be lost in translation -- literal and cultural). It's an interesting book, and aspects of it are appealing, but it's also just too much of a slog.

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Playing for Thrills: Reviews: Wang Shuo: Other books by Wang Shuo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Wang Shuo (王朔) is one of China's most popular and controversial authors.

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