Stick Out Your Tongue

By Ma Jian. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 93 pp. $16.

When Ma Jian traveled to Tibet in 1985, he discovered that amid extreme poverty and hardship, “the hostility the Tibetans felt towards their Chinese occupiers” was palpable, and that “in the thin mountain air, it was hard to distinguish fact from fantasy.” The stories that came out of that trip were published in the Beijing journal People’s Literature and attracted the attention of the Chinese government, which had embarked on a crusade against “bourgeois liberalism.” Ma was tarred as a dissident, and his work was denounced as “pornography”; his friends were interrogated; his editor was fired. But one year after the American publication of Ma’s novel The Noodle Maker, those earlier stories are finally available in English as Stick Out Your Tongue. (Red Dust, Ma’s story of a journey through China’s remote provinces, won the Thomas Cook Travel Award in 2002.)

Stick Out Your Tongue is more earnest than The Noodle Maker, which displayed Ma’s macabre sense of humor and his biting critique of human greed and hypocrisy. The stories are characteristically spare and keenly attentive to detail–particularly bodily detail. In “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” Ma witnesses a “sky burial,” in which the body of the deceased is carved up and fed to hawks and vultures. “Her right leg was soon reduced to bone,” he writes. “With her belly squashed to the ground, sticky fluid began to trickle from between her thighs.” Ma is a clear and careful observer of life on the steppe (“maggots wriggling through a pat of yak dung”); his prose is slow and hypnotic, but never mystical. He strives for that most radical of literary goals: to use characters not to express political beliefs, not to trumpet an ideology, but to communicate the living, breathing mess of real life, with all its contradictions. Ma does not write heroes or villains, just people struggling each day to survive.    –CS

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

By Carrie Tiffany. Scribner. 224 pp. $23.

This triumphant first novel by Australian author Carrie Tiffany, shortlisted for the Orange Prize, is set in 1930s rural Australia and tells the story of a doomed marriage between two high-minded idealists. Tiffany mixes fact with fiction as she re-creates the Australian government’s Better-Farming Train, a vehicle that traveled around the country bringing innovative agricultural techniques to small towns broken by war, depression and drought. Against this backdrop, she recounts the tale of Jean Finnegan, a seamstress, and Robert Pettergree, a soil scientist. Opposites certainly attract here: Robert is a radical ideologue with visions that recall the early principles of eugenics, while Jean is a pragmatist who believes in gradual change for the beleaguered towns they encounter. Following a peculiar seduction and courtship, they leave the train to get married: “a modern marriage.” Using Robert’s instruction manual “Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living” as an experimental guide to farming, they settle in the Mallee, a harsh and remote corner of the outback.

Their marriage fails, of course. From the start, scientific exactitude is usurped by the indifferent, untamable Australian land, and its unraveling underscores Tiffany’s assertion that “you can’t go living by rules when there’s a heart involved.” Tiffany, a former park ranger in the outback, writes with extraordinary sensitivity to rural life, attention to small detail and reverence for the vast Australian landscape. But perhaps the most affecting thing in Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is Jean’s sparse, quietly determined narrative, which reveals the hand of a first-rate novelist. Jean’s voice, like her experiments, is fiercely controlled, yet it grows increasingly raw as she confronts the gap between how she wants to live and how she is living, understanding that “there is no point in focusing on the horizon, on what lies beyond what the eye can see; the truth of the matter is right here.”   –KR