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People Like Us by Zichao Deng
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On the surface, People Like Us is a simple tale of larceny and lechery. Of a heist, and a come-hither. On the surface.

D.Z.C.’s style lies somewhere between that of Henry Fielding (for ingenuous roguery and gallant knavishness — oxymorons intended) and Arthur Conan Doyle (for ‘whodunit’ narrative); and again between that of P. G. Wodehouse (for wit), and Oscar Wilde (for punch). “Electric” comes to mind as a possible descriptor — but so do many other adjectives, all of them glowing at 1,000 watts.

To cite just a few examples (and there are hundreds of these bons mots, let’s examine the following sentence from the chapter titled “Tuesday 8th November”:

“(t)he problem is that when you hear the words ‘Brittany’ and ‘art’ in close proximity, you immediately think of Gauguin and his horrible, bilious mustard obsession, or endless rebarbative pencil sketches of lumpen girls in coiffes.”

(Ironic, isn’t it, that while Microsoft’s McWord program doesn’t recognize the perfectly English and energetic “rebarbative,” to say nothing of either ‘lumpen’ or ‘coiffes,’ D.Z.C. does — and uses it to great effect.)

And then, much later in the story, we have this one:

“Normally I’m all in favour of (formality) — I love the formal vous and wish that we had an equivalent in English. It can be mind-blowingly sexy, when used right — a vous appropriately applied can turn my insides to water. (I believe that I’m not alone. Apparently there also exists a subset of weirdoes who make a fetish out of Japanese keigo, or formal language, of which there is naturally an abundance. Personally, I just wouldn’t be able to suspend disbelief. It sounds slightly artificial even when it’s coming from Japan Airlines stewardesses, so God only knows how uncomfortably it must sit on the tongue of a sys-admin from Milton Keynes in a leather waistcoat. Blech.)”

And nearing five-eighths of the story (after we’ve become all too well-acquainted with Louise), we find:

“‘Good riddance to bad rubbish,’ she snapped, rather too loudly. I sighed. Clearly some back-peddling would be necessary. Dealing with people is such a bore.

“… It was just possible that she would be too stupid to see the natural consequences of this. Naturally, I would have preferred to not come to such a point, but she really was an unwarranted danger: friction and fog, to put it in Clausewitzian terms.”

And finally, as we approach the end-zone of the novel, we find this:

“The Christmas fair was being held in some cramped little prefabs owned by the municipality. From a distance(,) it looked warm and cozy. Close up(,) they were icy cold, despite being full of steam. Everyone kept their coats on (—) and fat, down-stuffed jackets left trails in the condensation on the windows(,) and knocked trinkets off tables. It reminded me of school, somehow. The sellers were precisely what you’d expect(:) the kind of people who believe that their neighbors will be willing to pay six euros for indifferent seed cake just because someone went to the trouble of home-making it.”

As I’ve indicated with the above parentheses, I don’t always agree with D.Z.C.’ punctuation. But ‘to each his own’ — and faulty punctuation, I feel, is a small price to pay for otherwise stellar prose.

In further praise of D.Z.C., I’ll also say that (s)he has this too-delicious little habit — akin to an ‘aside’ in theater talk — of exiting his/her narrative from time to opportune time in order to address or harangue the reader with an instance of self-doubt. I haven’t read this kind of thing since O. Henry — who did it equally as effectively, I might add — and rather than find it distracting, I found it in each case full of piss and vinegar. But a writer has to be extremely self-confident in order to pull this off. And most of us, I’ll venture to say, just don’t feel that degree of confidence.

All of the above notwithstanding — and as one who is not so well-versed in British, French, Japanese, etc., culture as he perhaps should be — I feel I should insert a word of caution: D.Z.C. is. Consequently, you may find yourself as beached a whale as I did when I read, for example, a reference to “…the dulcet tones of Melanie Phillips (of) The Moral Maze (fame)” during a moment of, um, love-making — and subsequently went looking via YouTube.com for what I believed would be an unknown (to me, at least) new balladeer, only to find a BBC Radio talk show featuring “the dulcet tones” of a modern-day harpy. If it’s not already clear from these brief examples, D.Z.C. wields irony like a switchblade.

D.Z.C. addresses his/her story to what I’d believed was an anonymous ‘you’ — had believed, that is, until I got a little over one-third of the way into the novel (location 1296 on my Kindle) and discovered that no, ‘you’ was not at all anonymous, but was in fact a policewoman (albeit, only later identified as such — and still later as Inspector Chantelouve — and still later as Daphne Chantelouve of Scotland Yard, but of French (paternal) lineage; D.Z.C. is obviously not a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am kinda writer when it comes to introducing his/her female protagonist).

Many less gifted writers have some difficulty keeping their characters distinct in a reader’s mind. D.Z.C. does not. A little past the point at which we’re first (and only furtively) introduced to the mysterious “you,” our male protagonist in this story — while house-hunting for a temporary place to warm his heels while he works out his crimes (past, present and future)—meets “a slightly-past-middle-aged English woman” who has just such a place for rent. In a paragraph that seems to run the length of a Bible, this woman comes alive to us as if she were actually standing in the same room. The monologue is (at least to this reader) in a word, heroic in its (D.Z.C.’s) execution!

And what of the ‘rationalist philosopher’ D.Z.C.? I’ll give you this nugget and let you decide for yourself how stern is his/her stuff:

“I would deviate slightly from Buddhist teachings and suggest that the root cause of suffering is not desire but the failure to appreciate what one has for what it is. Though to a certain extent they’re merely different ways of saying the same thing, my version allows that it is perfectly possible to enjoy desire in itself; unfulfilled passion can be a joy and an end in itself, as long as one is willing to accept it and appreciate it without hoping for more. It is, at any rate, free of all the banalities and disappointments attendant on any real intrigue. It all comes down to this: I would have wanted you less had I not known you to be completely beyond my reach.” Ta-dah!

And of D.Z.C. the aficionado of carnality — if not the unabashed carnivore?

“Apparently filled with impetuousness and uncontrollable passion(,) I took Louise roughly in the toilets. God, what hell it must be to make a living as a professional escort.”

(Note D.Z.C.’s omission of an exclamation point at the conclusion of the second sentence. Vintage D.Z.C. and penned, no doubt, with a raised eyebrow — one part, self-mock; one part, self-salute; just a dash of bitters — which most of his characters are apt to wear on one occasion or another.)

One additional word of criticism of D.Z.C.’s work, if I may be allowed…. While D.Z.C. (thankfully!) has no problem with pronominal reference — something that, in my reading experience, seems to have reached a state of pandemic proportions — (s)he’s too often remiss in the matter of dialogue tags. I found myself having to read sections over and over again in order to figure out who was the owner of a particular snippet of dialogue. While I could attribute this to my own poor powers of concentration, D.Z.C. would do well to remember that most people don’t read stories by candlelight in soundproof isolation cells. Print on the page has to contend (and compete) with myriad distractions and disturbances, many of which occur in a reader’s head.

What I will give D.Z.C. kudos for, however, is that (s)he accomplishes something all good writers must: (s)he re-introduces the reader to a number of words that have since gone to the dogs. I’ve always believed that writers are ‘the guardians of the language’ — and D.Z.C. can wear that distinction with pride. We’re not talking polysyllabic, Latinate vocabulary, but rather good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon (or at least Germanic) roots — all of which are firmly grounded.

You might also want to keep a dictionary (or Google) close at hand to check out the English-language meanings of many of the characters’ names. You won’t be disappointed for your efforts.

Oh, and from the chapter “Friday 18th November” (Location 3383 in my Kindle): “Did you know that ‘circumstantial evidence’ is an anagram of ‘can ruin a selected victim?’” I checked. It’s true. (S)he really worked it out. D.Z.C., you rascal you!

One last pair of questions — which I’ll paraphrase from two of D.Z.C.’s final questions in People Like Us before you run off to buy yourself a copy: “What? Did you expect (it) to have a happy ending? Surely you know that real life doesn’t work that way?”

RRB
03/13/14
Brooklyn, NY

( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
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