High Degree of Atrocious Writing
A review of
High Degree of Atrocity
Jay Scott Kanes
|Click cover for blurb|
|A badly written but inventive drama inspired by the protests of 2003, in which China clamps down on Hong Kong in no uncertain fashion.
You are on a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong. Just feet away from you, a man pulls out a gun, blows a policeman’s head off and then shoots a young woman in the chest. Is your immediate utterance: a) a terror-stricken gasp; b) “Holy fucking shit!”; or c) “This is the kind of incident to give street protests a bad name.”
Meet Blair Barrett. Even allowing for the fact that he is Canadian, High Degree of Atrocity’s main male character comes out with the most inept, almost autistic, comments. He’s not the only one. And when the book’s characters don’t talk weird, they act it. A woman in an eye patch (a childhood chopstick accident, since you ask) is on the streets running from the authorities but doesn’t even think of disguising herself by donning sunglasses. The murdered girl’s father calmly goes to the office to plot revenge apparently within seconds of hearing the news. And then there are the similes. “His heart beat like bongo drums,” we learn of a PLA sniper receiving assassination orders. A suicidal cancer victim’s “…mood dipped lower than a cockroach beneath an MTR train on the deepest stretch of underground track.”
So this is a book to fling in the bin? On the contrary. For anyone who attended recent pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong and who genuinely appreciates bad writing, High Degree of Atrocity is a page-turner. Although the fast-paced action is set five years from now, it is actually a fantasy-satire of 2003-04.
Hong Kong is beset by bad government: protests, unemployment, disease and such poverty that some of us are eating tree bark and cockroaches. In an attempt to displace the chief executive, the chief secretary arranges the shooting at the march. But the dead girl turns out to be the daughter of Beijing’s top man in the SAR. He unleashes the PLA on the city, leaving hundreds dead from Nathan Road to Statue Square, and declares himself CE. The carnage keeps coming as top democrats are rounded up, their leader coming to a sorry end as an involuntary organ donor in an ambulance in Guangdong. Blair’s one-eyed wife Elsie, an Emily Lau-Audrey Eu hybrid, eventually escapes to keep the flame of democracy burning with the help of the fortune her dying father accidentally won when deliberately trying to lose all his wealth in a Macau casino. The US sends aircraft carriers but then thinks better of it.
Is Elsie’s visual handicap a metaphor for the lack of foresight displayed over the years by Martin Lee and other Hong Kong democrats? Almost certainly not. The author doesn’t seem to do metaphors. Which brings us to his literary shortcomings. He delivers a violent, apocalyptic vision of our city with frequently clumsy and occasionally awful writing. Really awful.
All our favourite clichés are here – the inevitable reminder that guanxi means connections (1), the bill for the bullet sent to an executed prisoner’s family, a Russian hooker in Macau – none contributing anything to the plot. But it’s the unwieldy use of language that will dismay, entertain or maybe intrigue readers. “The gunman’s nasal hairs curled tightly into defensive postures.” (They uncurl a few paragraphs later.) Characters’ rigid comments, containing all the emotion of Al Gore reciting lines from a tourist phrase book, are almost eerie. Arriving at a ransacked office containing a friend murdered by soldiers, Blair announces, “The mess here implies trouble finding what they wanted.” As rampaging soldiers leave the streets running with blood, Elsie makes the almost robotic observation, “a violent crackdown by the PLA means the central government wants to strangle dissent in Hong Kong.” And the word ‘cargo’ keeps cropping up for no apparent reason, as do similes relating to African wildlife. Not on every page, perhaps, but rather more than you would expect.
Kanes claims on the back cover to have been an “insider in Hong Kong’s government sector.” Given that he obviously has an imagination, this is unlikely. He openly bases Blair on himself, so we can guess that the author, like the hero, is one of those unfortunate hacks who churn out English copy for such publicly funded empires as the Tourism Board or the Trade Development Council. We might also guess that this self-published novel, so obviously lacking a decent editor, is his first attempt at fiction. So – good for him. How many other people on last year’s July 1 march wrote a book about it? He is hardly the first to write a dreadful book about Hong Kong – Simon Winchester’s Pacific Nighmare (2) and Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong (3) come to mind. And credit where it’s due: even if Kanes can’t craft words as well as those two, at least he knows his way around Hong Kong.
Notes and Asides
(1) The phrase “…guanxi (connections)…” is compulsory in any hackneyed writing on China. It is as inevitable as the line “You’d better come in” in a lame Hollywood movie.
(2) A roughly similar plot to Atrocity, except the action happens pre-1997 and World War III starts.
(3) Takes place in 1997. A clumsy allegory in which the British owner of a textile factory is forced to hand over his business to a grasping Mainland Chinese. The factory is in Kowloon Tong – which is about as likely as having a banana plantation in Central.