Friday, May 18, 2007

Book Review: The Story of The Stone by Barry Hughart

Grade: A
This one's for august, who is by far the best Chinese historian that I've ever met. I don't know if he intentionally takes his nickname from his scholarship, but I've only encountered one dude for whom that word is a standard adjective. Maybe the big J-Dog bends his eye to the wrong side of the cube every once in a while, and who knows, maybe he even slums it in redneck country long enough to inspire clever English-wielding sinophiles like august and Barry Hughart (who lives in the Arizona). If the Jade Emperor ever does make a visit, I hope he dresses the part...

August ran an excellent series of posts recently on Chinese Daoism, and I'm indebted to him (and Wikipedia) for any understanding of its basic precepts that might have informed my reading. It would be a blast to read a contextual critique of Hughart's work, by someone who could separate from the Daoism from the deism maybe, or to contrast it againt the resurging Confucian ideas that formed the seventh century political backdrop of this novel. (To this western barbarian, it seems a difference between resignation toward the bureaucratic evils of the time and a dutiful embrace of them.) August could certainly do a better job than I at picking apart all of the cheerful and quite intentional anachronisms and historical deviations too.

Not that it's a political novel by any means. It's more its own sort of hybrid of detective fiction, ghost story, love story, and mythic parable, set against the worst sorts of historical horrors--tyrants, murderers, genocidal madmen, endemic corruption. Hughart handles it all with an irresistable light heart. He has a soft spot for the oppressed, for lonely genius, for doomed lovers, and the prose is a masterpiece of understated humor (which doesn't preclude laughing out loud in parts). The Story of the Stone, like his other novels, concerns the adventures of Master Li Kao, an impossibly aged and knowledgable scholar with a slight flaw in his character, and his assistant, Number Ten Ox (the narrator), a peasant with immense brawn, heart, and humility. Together, they traipse about the empire--from imperial and barbarian courts to the tombs of tyrants and boys' hideouts, to the Ten Hells even--solving supernatural mysteries like a debased, crafty Holmes on the back of a gigantic, charming Watson. Part of Hughart's genius is to let real pathos sneak past the tender narration and fabulation now and then, catching a genuine and sometimes heartbreaking glimpse of the rot of power and the nobility of the honest heart.

If there's a fault with The Story of the Stone, it's that it has the misfortune of following Hughart's first novel, which was in many ways a singular work. It had to succeed a story of an ancient China that never was with an ancient China that sort of was, and as such, it takes a couple dozen pages to get its groove back. Like a lot of mysteries (not that I read many) there are a lot of plot points in the air at any time with little help of emphasis, and after a while I stopped trying very hard to follow the twists in the labyrinth, and just let the author walk me through it, enjoying the sights. It's a great ride.

Story as a standalone novel is twenty years out of print anyway, but apparently an omnibus edition was released in in 1998 due to popular demand, which may be even harder to find. (I think Bridge of Birds is still quite easy to get your hands on, however. That book is the only story I've recommended to my mother that she enjoyed, ever. I figure that has to say something about its universal appeal.) Hughart was evidently quite upset with his publishers, and unable to support himself writing for a living, quit sometime after the release of his third novel.


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august said...


I'm touched, and I don't know the book. I will certainly track it down. Thanks so much.

Keifus said...

Well, to be fair, you're also the only Chinese historian that I know, so there's that.

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