Join us for a reading and book signing with Jonathan Tel featuring his new book, SCRATCHING THE HEAD OF CHAIRMAN MAO.
“A tour de force of deep knowledge, uncanny powers of observation, and brilliant tragicomic invention . . . [A] tale full of harshness and corruption that nevertheless leaves a lingering flavor of strange, otherworldly sweetness.”—James Lasdun, author of Afternoon of a Faun and The Fall Guy
China is the center of the world, and the center of China is Beijing, and at the center of Beijing is a billionaire financier named Qin. At the opening of this novel-in-stories, Qin is lying in state at his funeral, victim of a sudden and premature death. But it is not until the end of Tel’s biting, virtuosic, post-post-modern feat of cultural observation that the manner of Qin’s death is revealed.
Moving back and forth in time, we meet a wide range of Chinese, all linked to Qin by a degree or two of separation: a property developer, a street artist, a prostitute, a fashion model, a spy, an expat lawyer, a muckraking journalist. Linlin and Feifei are sisters, though not really, as “that would be contrary to government policy.” A husband and wife who hardly know each other are reunited in the mysterious Factory 221, where he has become head geologist of a Chinese nuclear base by virtue of survival. “Business relationships,” Qin thinks, “are often like a series of seemingly independent stories that turns out in the end to make up one grand narrative.”
“How can a man live in Beijing?” thinks the shoe thief, as he walks away from Qin’s funeral in another man’s solid black brogues.
Young and old, poor and less poor, native and migrant, stand in a line that ribbons and twists back on itself on the sidewalk outside a recreations building, and in fours or sixes, men to the right, women to the left, are allowed into what was and will be again a basketball court, where, studious, they process up and down, poring over the array of shoes, attending to them—the bargain being: if it clutches in the right way, if it seeks to meld with the foot, if it recognizes you, then you consent to recognize it.… Will you be mine, will I be yours, what kind of China might we belong in?
“Jonathan Tel has an amazing ability to ‘get into the heads of Chinese people.’ His characters feel authentic, yet the storytelling is refreshingly different.”—Lijia Zhang, author of Lotus and Socialism is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir
Jonathan Tel is an award-winning novelist and short story writer whose books include Arafat’s Elephant, Freud’s Alphabet, and The Beijing of Possibilities. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and Granta. Stories in this book have won the Sunday Times EFG Story Prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize. Tel teaches history at Stanford University in Berlin, travels widely, and is in Beijing as often as possible. He once taught writing at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).
“Mr. Tel is excellent at subtly warping the ordinary experiences of his characters, blending the real with the absurd.” -Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal