Typically when I choose books to read, factored into my decision is what is going on in the rest of life – at home, at work, at church, in my extended circle of friends and family, or in broader society. To gain insight, perspective, context, understanding, or to counterbalance excesses, I’ll choose books that check boxes.
I just finished ‘China: The Novel’ by Edward Rutherford. Published May of 2021, I started it last October, and finishing it took willpower. It was the last book in my queue which was a holdover from my previous employment, and that at least feels good in the way checking boxes does.
Both my own life and the world look different to me now compared with when I put this book in the queue; and now I have a few different strains of thought I want to key in on, explore, and delve into in greater depth. So with this work finished, I can do that. And I am glad.
But at the time I put this work into the queue, I had just finished the last novel in James Clavell’s epic Asian Saga series. And fascinated by the whole East meets West paradigm, I wanted more of the same. Rutherford’s novel was both that and not-that in different ways.
Covering much the same historical period and subject matter as Clavell’s series, there were a lot of similar themes and features that cropped up in both. However, the tone and tenor of Rutherford’s take definitely both feel like a product of the kind of thinking in the West which is du jour these days.
I don’t mean that in a good way. What I mean is that this novel feels like it was written at a time when the appropriateness and truthfulness of CRT have been a very contentious issue in our government, public schools, the corporate world, and broader society.
That is not to say, of course, that anti-Western, anti-Colonialist, anti-Imperialist, anti-European notions are something new which were not around in Clavell’s heyday. But it is to say this Rutherford novel feels preachy and newspeak in a way no entry in Clavell’s older series ever did to me.
Doing the compare and contrast between Clavell and Rutherford is fascinating, though. One was written in the latter half of the 20th century by a former POW and WWII veteran who had seen the way Imperial Japan treated prisoners of war up-close because he was one. The other was written, edited, published, and promoted at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century by a product of the West’s most prestigious universities – at Cambridge, Stanford, and California. And it shows.
In short, this is just the sort of novel about China one would expect the intelligentsia to write, publish, market, consume, and laud today. That is to say, I did not love it.
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