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Apologies Forthcoming

Xujun Eberlein

Fun things used to happen more often on the big street, like Red Guard demonstrations, faction fights, or truck parades exposing criminals and counterrevolutionaries, with arms tied high behind their backs and heavy name boards strapped around their necks. But lately the street has been quiet as well. "

Reviewed by John Matthew Fox

Each story in Xujun Eberlein’s Apologies Forthcoming is set within or haunted by the Chinese Cultural revolution, invoking the specters of Chairman Mao and political oppression. Many of the stories share two additional similarities: young women whose high intelligence becomes a liability for marriage prospects, and the forced relocation of urbanities to villages (referred to as “inserting”). 

Unfortunately, the execution is spotty—a few stories succeed marvelously in drawing us into the historical significance of that time by way of a personal struggle, while others sag beneath the weight of awkward prose and narrative that skips over the necessary progressions or lingers too long. 

Pivot Point is one of the stories that work. In it, a young girl whose intelligence wards off most suitors starts a liaison with a married man named Lanbo, which is the Chinese pronunciation for Rambo, an American icon that the Chinese revered. As the couple struggles to have a secret relationship, they are thwarted by hotels that require a marriage license and a rifle-toting peasant that threatens to jail them for public affection. In this story, as in others, there are flashes of intellectualism—a discussion of Carl Popper and commentary on Wittgenstein—and later in the collection characters discuss mathematical proofs. The intellectualism, especially because it’s set in a cultural moment when the intelligentsia was despised and the unlearned proletariat lionized, serves as an apt counterpoint to the communistic ideology. 

Also convincing are some polarized characters who explore the tension between the pragmatic rationalism of science versus the aesthetic preferences of artists. The details are one of the joys of this collection. They are not only lively, but historically informative. For instance, all the “best” books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, were wrapped with brown Kraft paper, which signaled they were forbidden books. Only occasionally—as in the first story, Snow Line—do the details seem overabundant, overwhelming the narrative for the sake of delivering information about the scene and time. The writing is also slowed by inaccurate metaphors—“when the last words of the poem hit the floor with the sounds of brass cymbals”—and improbable feats of hearing—“he listened to Qianqian’s heart beating behind the curtain.” But when Eberlein tempers her narrative pace, writes precisely, and supplies a measured amount of information about the world she knows so well, she executes stories that are a pleasure to read.

John Matthew Fox blogs about short stories and other literary matters at BookFox. His reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, California Literary Review, Boldtype, and The Quarterly Conversation.

John's other Short Reviews: Roddy Doyle "The Deportees and Other Stories"   


PublisherLivingston Press

Publication Date: May 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner, 2007 Tartt Fiction Award.

Author bio: Xujun Eberlein  grew up in Chongqing, China, and moved to the United States in the summer of 1988. After receiving a Ph.D. from MIT in the spring of 1995, she began writing, publishing stories and essays in AGNI, StoryQuarterly, and Stand. 

Read an interview with Xujun Eberlein

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