Banned in China for its taboo allusions to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Sheng Keyi's Death Fugue is a lyrical and dystopian satire that imagines a world of manufactured existence, the erasure of personal freedom, and the perils of governmental control.
... a remarkable translation by Shelly Bryant ... Sheng Keyi’s book is a disorientating mix of satire and fantasy that restlessly challenges novelistic and other protocols ... through a slippery, elusive interchange between melancholy recall and shiny phantasmagoria, the intimate and the speculative, ‘those born in the 1960s in China’—to whom the book is dedicated—begin to be heard in a new way ... Sheng writes [her protagonist] as a rich portrait of the impotent potency, or potent impotency, that has made Chinese intellectuals (mostly male) ineffectual in shouldering the obligation to change their society for the better. They feel useless, and they are ... The writing is sometimes quivering, feverish, wild, given to pursuit of similitudes in a Chinese style that is here more yin than yang ... Grotesquerie, lyricism, anomie, cool humour and ironic grandiosity play together in a fugal manner, now andante, now scherzo, always returning to the vision of doom from which this world is in flight ... Plenty of Death Fugue is gorgeous, overwrought or tongue-in-cheek, as it bleeds into soft porn and sci-fi at the edges. Much of it has a shocking immediacy, especially the scenes at the Square, rendered in subtly attentive prose of gripping power. More surprising, and moving, is the eloquent urgency of the argument ... Anyone remotely interested in an insider’s untrammelled, authoritative vision of what’s going on in China will jump into this fascinating cauldron of a novel, at risk of being boiled alive.
... it’s clear early on that Sheng is working in a tradition that includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood and other keen critics of human folly. But if Death Fugue nods to those predecessors, it’s fueled entirely by Sheng’s own elixir of genius and rage. The result is a relentless deconstruction of the Communist Party’s insistence that society can be perfected through enlightened centralized control ... mental confusion is effectively reflected in the structure of Death Fugue, which shifts time and place erratically. The tone, too, is weirdly chaotic, sliding from philosophical conversation to moments of grotesque absurdity. To be frank, it’s not an easy read, but in a crowded field of dystopian fiction, it’s destabilizing and finally enlightening in a wholly unique way ... This infinitely twisty novel couldn’t elude Chinese censors, but it still managed to slip out into the world and shout its scorching critique of the ongoing humiliation of the human spirit.
... daring subject matter and a thinly disguised allegory for authoritarian regimes is not an automatic recipe for great literature ... Chapters alternate between Beiping and Swan Valley, and in the former Ms. Sheng adeptly conveys the headiness of youth, awash with love and politics and dreams of immortality ... Yet Swan Valley, while meant to be the more menacing state, often borders on the farcical. Interesting ideas—not least the concept of a national amnesia that allows its residents to swap personal freedom for state productivity—are undermined by an overabundance of metaphors, similes and clichés ... Death Fugue is nonetheless a brave book.