To the average Westerner, reared on crisp autumn breezes and revitalizing spring air, Beijing’s tianqi, its weather, is a surreal departure. Everything is coated in a fine coating of toxic particulate matter, and visibility is sometimes limited to the tip of one’s nose. The plumes of yellow dust that greet Dunhuang—the narrator of Xu Zechen’s novel Running through Beijing—as he is released from prison are only one example of the angry meteorological revolt against the rise of Chinese industry over the past thirty years.
Dunhuang suffers from a kind of urban malaise. After a few days of homelessness, struggling on the streets, he meets Xiaorong; she helps him restart his business hawking pirated DVDs, and the two become lovers. Although the sexual aspect of their relationship is short-lived, they thrive as business partners: she supplies the pirated copies of Chow Yun-fat epics and Western films of all stripes while Dunhuang peddles the discs all over Haidian—the university district where prestigious Peking University is located—to students looking for everything from The Bicycle Thief to hardcore pornography.
Throughout the book, we are reminded of the boring emptiness of Dunhuang’s life as he tries to evade the police and find Qibao, a woman he has heard about from his imprisoned friend, Bao Ding. Dunhuang seeks Qibao out in his effort to assuage his guilt over Bao Ding’s having taken an ill-fated enterprise the two had undertaken together, yet when Dunhuang finally tracks her down their interaction only intensifies this guilt. Dunhuang is plagued by a tortured aimlessness that afflicts so many in the big city; it’s a common enough theme in literary fiction—mostly because it’s such a common sentiment in everyday life—but that aimlessness need not lead the reader through a maze of repeated emotional platitudes. Too often Xu’s listless sex scenes and painfully uninspired dialogue make the plot crawl.
This is not to say that the prose is artless: the descriptions of dust storms and the wind that “sounded like a crowd of children weeping outside the window” can be arch and well placed. The metaphor of dust and grime settling uncomfortably over the populous is a powerful one, and Xu often uses it to good effect. The government’s chemically induced rain clears away the dust in the air, making the sky blue again, and we don’t need to be reminded that Dunhuang, the petty criminal, could use those vanished clouds of grime to blend in with the crowd. Dunhuang is a criminal but not a wanted man; his arrest is inevitable, merely a matter of time, but the random nature of Public Security Bureau “crackdowns” intensifies his displacement.
The book’s title, Running through Beijing, implies the arbitrary and flighty nature of its plot, but for all of Dunhuang’s perambulations—his run-ins with the law; the scenes of lovemaking inelegantly disrupted by euphemism (a woman whose “river flows,” for instance)—we never see a compelling story unfold. This may very well be Xu’s intent: to leave the reader as unsettled and confused as Dunhuang. But where Meursault’s air of laconic, disinterested nihilism in The Outsider was parried by an unpredictable intensity, Dunhuang’s existential dyspepsia—and Running through Beijing is clearly aimed at the existential tradition—can be insipid and flat.
Xu’s other characters are fairly interchangeable. While people like Xiaorong have a presence in the novel, they lack agency, and when Xiaorong is kicking Dunhuang out of her bed or pulling him to her breast she is never more than a foil for his restless grasping. The blandness of these characters is only underscored by Xu’s habit of mounting a metaphorical shotgun above the mantle—like the kept woman who buys only violent or gory movies—and letting it sit with hardly another mention. Dunhuang’s questions about the woman’s identity and their gradually unfolding relationship are abruptly cut short: The woman appears in a few scenes before Dunhuang returns to find her apartment sealed with police tape, and he never discovers what happened to her. Perhaps Xu left these holes and loose ends deliberately; we can never know if or when something will be resolved.
Dunhuang’s guilt about Bao Ding’s prison term is a common thread in the book and its resolution, while not entirely unexpected, has the excitingly disoriented and frenetic character that marks the novel’s most affecting pages. Despite Running through Beijing’s sometimes-creaky dialogue and underdeveloped narrative devices, Xu has something real to offer the ever-burgeoning literature of Chinese despair. The dust, the cigarettes, the hustling on the street just to stay alive—these are evergreen topics. If Xu could harness Dunhuang’s existential depression and expand it, he could go even further in addressing, and exposing, the urban Chinese condition.