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Review: The Ten Thousand Things, by John Spurling
Overlook Duckworth, 2014. 354 pp. $28

An ancient Chinese saying proposes that the universe contains ten thousand things. The narrator of this eponymous, thought-provoking novel observes that “of all the complexities of the ten thousand things, the self-consciousness of man is ten thousand times the most complex.”

Ge Zichuan Relocating, by Wang Meng (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Ge Zichuan Relocating, by Wang Meng (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The narrator is Wang Meng, later recognized as a master painter of the final decades of the Yuan Dynasty, what Westerners would call the midfourtheenth century. Wang’s artistic gifts, however, are matched by his uncanny talent for playing a minor role in significant events, a journey that occupies this supposed memoir, written in prison during his last years. His career as artist and sometime civil servant correspond with (and take flight from) the political upheaval that brings the first Ming emperor to the throne. (The manner in which this dynastic founder seizes and employs power resembles the rise of Mao, by the way.)

The novel begins, though, with a small moment, a fruitless search for a jade ring, a coveted family heirloom. Typical of The Ten Thousand Things and its protagonist, the effort evokes deep feelings in Wang, which he examines for their justness and morality, but also in light of his love for life and beauty. Many such small moments, rendered in prose that flows like the streams and waterfalls that Wang enjoys painting, yield fascinating, knotty musings on politics, war, justice, government, friendship, sex, art–many of the ten thousand things, in other words. Often, I had to look up from the book to ponder what I’d just read, and I came away admiring how Spurling has thought deeply about life. As with this:


Yes, educated people are probably always on the edge of madness. Aren’t they the self-conscious element in nature turned on itself? And doesn’t that mirror reflecting the mirror begin to exclude nature and transform a man into a monster? By his intelligence and adaptability man rises above all other creatures. But take those qualities beyond a certain point and the man is no longer fit to live in any world except an artificial one of his own invention.

Most of the narrative unfolds in first person, but sometimes in third, as if the editors of his memoirs were speaking, but it could as well be Wang himself, in his self-conscious complexity. Several times, other characters accuse him of being emotionally cautious, and outwardly, he is. But inside, he’s a boiling cauldron, and his struggle to manage that and do the right thing makes him human. At the same time, he’s always trying to improve as an artist and is terrified of allowing pride, laziness, or foolishness to hamper his vision, an internal conflict that speaks to me:


The difficult part is to see the ten thousand things clearly without always getting caught in my own tricks for drawing them.


If that’s not relevant to writing, I don’t know what is.

Despite its philosophical nature, I find the narrative compelling and tense, and the pages turned quickly for me. I do think Spurling does himself or the reader no favors by occasional foreshadowings, like “he would never have believed that such-and-such could happen,” which to me only get in the way. But in any case, you have to be in the mood for a meander, not a gallop, and though the story grows, it’s not what you’d call a coherent, classic plot.

Like In the Wolf’s Mouth and The Lie, The Ten Thousand Things has been nominated for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction–deservedly, I think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.