“We’re just humble workers, and we can’t defeat physical laws,” a character named Zhou says in the central story in Jack Livings’s stunning debut collection.
It’s September 1976, right after the death of Chairman Mao, and Zhou, a glass expert, has been put in charge of overseeing the construction of a gigantic crystal sarcophagus for the dead leader. He’s told by the vice mayor of Beijing that the goal is to be achieved “within 10 months”: a task, Zhou tries to explain, that is physically impossible, the equivalent of transforming “a pile of flour into a baked loaf of bread” in two minutes.
The vice mayor is insistent that there be no delays, and Zhou resigns himself to the hopeless task. He knows it’s fruitless to argue: “The Party outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic. This knowledge was as essential to those in the room as the marrow in their bones. The Party was their water, their food, their thoughts.” In this story (“The Crystal Sarcophagus”) and the other tales in “The Dog,” Mr. Livings demonstrates his virtuosity as a storyteller, his ability to immerse us instantly in the lives of his characters, to conjure the daily reality of the very different worlds they inhabit. He takes readers from the era of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to today’s Beijing,where derivative traders vie to rack up huge profits, from remote provinces where bus drivers tear around the mountains convinced that “speed gave you a survival advantage” in a head-on collision to the streets of the capital where the “swarms of bicyclists” are so thick it’s difficult to cross the street.