BOOK BIZ: China’s rapid changes sweep

by Lynn Lofton

Published: August 16,2013

Tags: China, Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw

Expect to see and hear more about this book because it’s good and it’s about China, which as we all know, is the 800-pound gorilla in the world. There are people who’re fascinated by all things China. I’ve never been among their number, but all of us need to keep a look out at the vast changes in this large country that so dominates commerce.

Five Star Billionaire_rgb

“Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw is published by Spiegel & Grau ($26.00 hardcover)

“Five Star Billionaire” is set in the Shanghai of today, a place — like most all of China — that is becoming westernized at a rapid pace. Capitalism is overthrowing the old rules and culture. One of my down-the-street neighbors, who’s made several trips to China, told me after her most recent trip that she will never go there again because it’s so similar now to the U.S.

This book, which is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award, takes its title from a fictional self-help book and its mantras function as chapter titles. For instance, some of those mantras/titles are ‘Move to where the money is’ and Reinvent yourself.’ Aw’s five central characters are mostly insecure strivers from the outlands who’re trying to make it in the big city by whatever means are necessary.

One character is Phoebe, an amoral spa receptionist who shows up for a date at a sophisticated Western restaurant after making a list of things to remember. That list includes things such as “how to use the cutlery” and “what to do with the little baskets of bread.”

All the characters are juxtaposed against the capitalism and rapacious change of the New China where wealth brings respect as well as the heartburn of moral queasiness. Dwight Garner, a reviewer for the New York Times, wrote, “Five Star Billionaire is a meditation, at heart, on impermanence. The New China never stands still; to pause for even a moment is to be left behind. Every village, every city is changing. A young woman says, ‘It’s as if we are possessed by a spirit — like in a strange horror film.’”

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