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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fat Years

Chan Koonchung

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To purchase The Fat Years

Title: The Fat Years
Author: Chan Koonchung
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 306 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Fat Years - US
The Fat Years - UK
The Fat Years - Canada
The Fat Years - India
Les années fastes - France
Die fetten Jahre - Deutschland
Años de prosperidad - España
  • Chinese title: 盛世: 中國, 2013年
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Michael S. Duke
  • With an Introduction by Julia Lovell

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Our Assessment:

B- : strained satire/critique that doesn't work well as a novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 22/7/2011 Rahul Jacob
The Globe and Mail A+ 28/1/2012 Charles Foran
The Independent . 5/8/2011 James Kidd
The LA Times . 22/1/2012 David L. Ulin
Le Monde . 22/11/2011 Brice Pedroletti
The National . 16/9/2011 Jamie Kenny
NZZ . 29/11/2011 jkf
The NY TImes Book Rev. . 19/2/2012 Alison McCulloch
The Observer . 23/7/2011 Jonathan Fenby
The Spectator . 20/8/2011 Jonathan Mirsky
Wall St. Journal . 4/2/2012 Howard W. French

  Review Consensus:

  Important -- but differing opinions of the book as a work of fiction

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reading this book in 2011 is disquieting because some aspects of Chanís dystopian China are already here." - Rahul Jacob, Financial Times

  • "The Fat Years, possibly the most audacious book to have been published by a Chinese author not living in exile since Lu Xun excoriated the atrophied Confucianism of the early 20th century (.....) A landmark in the fraught minority tradition of the humanist voice in China, The Fat Years is designed as much for outrage and argument as literary excellence. (...) But this novel isnít only essential reading, it is also urgent." - Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail

  • "Chan's portrait is bracing, smart and entertaining, but whether The Fat Years is an entirely successful work of fiction is less certain. Its odd combination of autobiography, polemic, thriller and critique makes for a somewhat awkward read. It is possible this wonkiness is a knowing attempt to mirror the plot's ellipses. But in the lengthy Epilogue, Chan's enjoyably absurdist story is elbowed aside by a didactic finale" - James Kidd, The Independent

  • "On the one hand, that's the stuff of satire, a dystopian riff out of Aldous Huxley or Philip K. Dick. At the same time, Chan is after something deeper, a consideration of the way forgetting influences polity, and in the face of overwhelming options, we lose sight of what we need. (...) Chan has crafted a cunning caricature of modern China, with its friction between communism and consumerism, its desire to reframe the Revolution in terms of "market share and the next big thing." But he has also identified a deeper dislocation, one stretching from China to the world." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Ce qu'il y a d'aussi très pertinent dans Les années fastes, c'est que le roman capte cet air du temps de la Chine d'aujourd'hui qui vire insensiblement à la prise de conscience politique" - Brice Pedroletti, Le Monde

  • "Written in 2008, The Fat Years is an excellent summary of the path China believed it was on at the time, still reflects China's official dreams, and still offers a cool and caustic assessment of the dreamers. Even so, and even though the book has only just been published in English, it could do with a sequel." - Jamie Kenny, The National

  • "Als Roman vermag das von fern an Brave New World erinnernde, flott und mehrstimmig erzählte Buch kaum zu überzeugen. Dafür ist seine Figurenzeichnung zu schematisch, die Liebesgeschichte zwischen Chen und Xiaoxi zu kraftlos und der Plot zu vorhersehbar. Gegen Ende liest es sich gar wie ein journalistischer Hintergrundbericht. Doch für den, der mehr über China und seine inneren Verhältnisse erfahren will, lohnt sich die Lektüre dieser schwarzen, politisch brisanten Satire." - jkf, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "A preface and translatorís note argue the book is a window onto contemporary China, but at times The Fat Years is larded with the kind of analysis more common to foreign policy journals. With its offbeat puzzle and diverting characters, however, Chanís story is not only absorbing in its own right, it also shines reflected light on the foibles of the West." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "To touch on so many issues, either directly or by implication, in such a compelling narrative is a triumph, abetted by an excellent translation by Michael Duke." - Jonathan Fenby, The Observer

  • "I found this disturbing because, apart from the missing month, it is mostly true today. (...) Michael S. Duke has skillfully translated this novel and evoked its creepiness. And both he and Julia Lovell contribute interesting and important introductory analyses." - Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator

  • "(A)n inventive and highly topical novel (.....) The profound question that this novel contemplates is just how far power can be decoupled from ideas, starting with knowledge of oneself and one's own history." - Howard W. French, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Fat Years is set in the recent future, in 2013, after yet another world economic crisis has shifted global economic might even more decisively to China. It is the era of 'China's Golden Age of Ascendancy' -- and so, for example, narrator Lao Chen notes as he sips his Lychee Black Dragon Latte:

Ever since the Wantwant China Group acquired Starbucks, many Chinese drinks have gone global.
       The good times in China are really good times -- indeed, one of the peculiarities is how happy and pleased everyone is, with nary a complaint, as all toil away for the good of the state (and also reap many of the benefits in this ultra-stable economic powerhouse). Pretty much overnight: "people suddenly became more prosperous and everyone started smiling". Turns out, someone has been putting something in the water -- and beyond that, the state has actually managed to wipe out the collective memory of an entire month, as it turns out that transition to the 'Golden Age of Ascendancy' wasn't nearly as smooth as the authorities would like to have (and are able to make) everyone believe. A few traces of the missing month can still be found -- some magazines and the like -- but overall the authorities have managed not just to rewrite history but to convince practically everyone that their version is what actually happened.
       Of course, this isn't entirely new in China: as is pointed out:
     For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have had it explained to them by their family or teachers. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history -- because no one says anything about it.
       From this interesting premise Chan spins a clunky three-part novel. Lao Chen -- apparently referred to as 'Old Chen' in the UK edition of the novel -- is a journalist and writer who meanders and observes, giving an overall picture of the state of the country -- one eerily similar to the real contemporary China.
       Other characters include asthmatics whose inhaler-use apparently blocks the feel-good chemical everyone else is consuming, an ambitious young Party hack, and government official He Dongsheng. The long third part of the novel has He Dongsheng lecturing and pontificating at great length about China, past and present, and explaining what the paternalistic state is doing, and why. Here the veneer of fiction becomes exceedingly thin.
       Chan develops a modestly interesting story around Chen and the people he encounters, but veers unevenly about with little focus. Too much is too obviously presented in order to describe and critique contemporary Chinese conditions, and the final section is mere polemic, poorly dressed up in fictional trappings.
       Interesting and valuable for what it says and shows about China, The Fat Years unfortunately isn't much of a novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 February 2012

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The Fat Years: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Chan Koonchung (陳冠中) was born in 1952.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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