Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Heading Out To The Highway

China Road
by Rob Gifford

Country Driving
by Peter Hessler

A long road tells a story of its own. It can also serve as a means of telling another story, as Rob Gifford does in an effort to draw a bead on modern China.
The book's construct is simple: Gifford, closing his tour of duty as NPR correspondent in China, sets out from Shanghai on State Road 312, a 3,000-mile journey across the breadth of the land to its border with Kazakhstan.
It's an effective tool, carrying the reader from the teeming megalopolis to the dusty deserts of Chinas hinterland.
The book paints a picture of a country changing at a pace it's own people have trouble assimilating, and Giffords road effectively touches on those struggles, including the dislocations created by the mass migration toward cities and factories, the hopelessness of country life that helps drive it, pervasive corruption, the one-child policy, and the fate of ethnic minorities in outlying regions.
China Road, in my personal experience, suffers from only one major flaw for which it cannot be blamed: it was published in 2007. Given that relentless change is a primary theme of the book, one wonders if is also out-of-date. (The book itself grew out of an NPR series that ran in 2004).

By coming to 'China Road' so long after its publication I unfairly subjected to comparison with Hessler's 2010 'Country Driving,' another book that uses a road trip in China as a storytelling vehicle.
Gifford's straight-ahead journalistic approach is effective, but it's an unfair fight to compare it with Hessler's more literary non-fiction; 'Country Driving' is one of the best books of any kind I've read for years.
The titles not completely accurate.
The driving trip in question is one of the book's three parts. The other two detail Hessler's long-term experience as a part-time resident in a country village outside Beijing, and following the story of a single factory in southeastern China.
These two immersive experiences are at the heart of Hessler's book; the end result is insightful about the strengths and the weaknesses of Chinese society as it attempts to thrust itself into the First World. It also has a lot of heart.