Early on in Empire of Glass, the novel’s American narrator offers fair warning that what follows will not be straightforward: “So much of what I’m telling you is already reimagined, reconfigured so convex angles are made concave, mirrors reflecting other mirrors reflecting an uncertain, setting sun.” That includes her name, Lao K (or “Familiar K”), a nickname her Chinese homestay family gave to replace “a long, complicated name we could never pronounce.”
Our Friday Reads for April travel the world—from cricket practice in a Mumbai slum to a flower stall in New York City, and from the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia to Algiers after the war of independence. Meet the men and women who bring these places to life through their struggles, aspirations, and survival.
To get to Shanghai I take a Boeing 777 airplane to a Buick van to an Airbus 320 airplane to a Bombadier subway car to a Hyundai taxicab to a Shinkansen high-speed train to a Xiali taxi. This is China. This is a country in motion.
“Even after the train had pulled up alongside the long platform and come to a complete stop, I couldn’t be sure if this was the city I’d wanted to travel to, even though it looked like it.”—Wang Shuo, Playing for Thrills
I discovered Wang Shuo in a fitting location: an unpaved alleyway outside Beijing University’s east gate, barely wide enough for two bicycles to pass, the shadows steeply angled in late afternoon. The year was 2000. I was a regular at the hutongcafé, Sculpting in Time (long since bulldozed), spending afternoons sipping Chinese-style iced cappuccinos (overly iced and foamed) and reviewing Chinese texts on U.S.-China relations. A few storefronts down, a Tibetan man studying at Minzu (Minority) University ran an independent film store. One day, I wandered his shop’s cardboard boxes of pirated VCDs (the predecessor to DVDs), looking for something interesting.