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Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa
Published by AmazonCrossing on October 1st 2017
Buy on Book Depository
It was over; the woman called it off. So, Hawa Liu did the thing he thought best. He bullied his best friend, Wufu, into leaving their village to seek their fortunes in Xi’an. And because Hawa wasn’t a good name for a new beginning, he changed his name to Happy. Because that happy is what he wanted to be.
Happy Dreams is Jia Pingwa’s “novel” of migrant workers lives in Xi’an, China. I use novel loosely because it’s modeled on an actual Happy Liu, a schoolmate of Jia’s. You don’t find out any of this backstory until the author notes after the novel, which is disappointing. I didn’t appreciate the story until reading them. I actually nearly DNFed it at 24%. Compared to Western novels, and my current headspace, nothing ever happens. Happy and Wufu work the streets as trash pickers. Buying trash from their allotted area and selling it, hopefully for a profit. They make friends and eat noodles and dumplings with their neighbors, Eight, Almond and Goolies. Some days they make a lot of money, others they get ripped off. His friends and other trash pickers think Happy has airs, which he does. He’s trying to break out of poverty but doesn’t quite know how. Except he doesn’t know that.
None of the characters appealed to me. I didn’t feel anything when Happy fell in love with Yichun—his dream woman who is actually a prostitute. Happy is a jerk to his friends, pushing them around and putting them down. But they’re also jerks to him. Eight and Wufu are content to be trash pickers, and their jerk behavior is provincial.
While being rather ho-hum, Happy Dreams is also crass. There is swearing, but also farts, and more get laughed at. Wufu and Eight visit the dance hall for handjobs because they miss their wives back in the village. Life as a trash picker is hard, and Jia doesn’t hide or glamorize any of that.
Happy Dreams was translated into English by Nicky Harman, and she did an excellent job. The speech patterns are very Chinese. Short, sharp and to the point. She didn’t Anglicize it, which I appreciate but from the GoodReads reviews, some people need to get out more. It was reading the reviews why I continued. I was reminded that Chinese stories don’t follow the hero’s journey model we’re more used to. They also gave a spoiler that convinced me to continue. Despite all the times, it’s hinted at the spoiler event happens in the final pages. A warning too: Happy Dreams is long. Five hundred pages long. But it doesn’t drag for the length. I have the Amazon Kindle edition so only had a percentage tracker. I was shocked to see the page count after finishing.
I would probably be gushing about this book if I wasn’t craving something with more action.