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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Lao Ma

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To purchase Individuals

Title: Individuals
Author: Lao Ma
Genre: Stories
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Individuals - US
Individuals - UK
Individuals - Canada
Individuals - India
  • Chinese title: 个别人
  • Translated by Li Qisheng and Li Ping
  • With a Foreword by Yan Lianke
  • With a Foreword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : gently amusing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Individuals is a collection of 'flash fiction', the cover promising: "55 stories of less than 1,000 words". Lao Ma's stories are indeed relatively short, but there's more flesh than flash to them: at closing-in-on-a-thousand-words, as many of them are, they tend to be reasonably substantial; none is shorter than a single page. So readers shouldn't be expecting nuggets of succinctness. Nevertheless, Lao shows good command over his chosen form (or preferred length), managing to tell quite full tales without any feel of being rushed; for better and worse, these pieces almost all feel like stories that just happen to be (relatively) short.
       A professor himself, the majority of Lao's stories involve characters in academia -- professors, students, administrators, support staff. Much as simple American stories might offer variations on the United States as a land of opportunity, Lao's tales depict a China in which anything can (and frequently does) happen -- those from humble origins can rise to great heights and the talented can stumble or be driven into lowly positions. Corruption in its various forms is so endemic that there isn't any guarantee of success even for those who seem to play that game particularly well -- but connections and the proper kowtowing to those who might help one's career generally prove far more useful than pure intellect or academic success.
       The values of contemporary society lead to certain expectations -- which Lao amusingly takes to extremes, as in 'Silver Tongue', in which the narrator visits a once garrulous classmate of his, only to find him barely uttering a word. It turns out that:

He was earning so much from his lectures he'd decided that every single word he uttered was worth paying for. No payment -- in advance mind -- no talk.
       'A Poet', on the other hand, presents a character who doesn't fit in at all, arousing the ire of all who have anything to do with him; the punchline is already foreshadowed in the story-title: it turns out he's a poet -- which immediately excuses him: "Had we known he's only a poet, we wouldn't have paid the slightest attention to him".
       Officialdom in its various forms -- but especially governmental -- is deemed and shown to be almost entirely useless. As one of his narrators forthrightly (but only parenthetically) sums up:
     (I must admit that most of us view government officials as stupid, incompetent, greedy, corrupt bumpkins, whose main role in life is to serve as a butt for mean jokes and jibes we spend our free time making up about them.)
       While many of these stories follow a roughly similar arc -- often a situation that tends, in some way, to an extreme; the narrator not fully grasping what is going on, or why; an amusing definitive final twist or reveal -- there is enough variety to them that Lao does not wear out his welcome -- no small feat in a volume of fifty-five stories. In a way, many of these stories are predictable -- it's fairly clear where many of them are going, or will wind up -- and Lao is not one for radical surprises or changing the rules as he goes along; there's a genial safeness to them. Lao's tales are rarely outright provocative or cynical, but they are not bland either. And while they are not strictly realistic in their depiction of present-day China, they do give a good impression of life and opportunities (and corruption) there.
       Individuals is consistently enjoyable, and a good sort of collection for dipping into. There's no need to gulp it all down at once, but it's a nice little volume to return to for a gently amusing and insightful occasional snack.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2015

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Individuals: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Lao Ma (劳马) -- a pseudonym for Ma Junjie -- teaches at Renmin University. He was born in 1962.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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