Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien

What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you nothing about nothing. Still, wasn’t zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite?

A sprawling novel centered around two generations of an extended family — two closely connected families, really — from the oppression of China’s Cultural Revolution through the violence of the student protests in 1989 into the modern day where some characters have emigrated to the West, leaving that past behind in body, yet carrying the disconnect of trauma with them. Throughout the book, there are characters that disappear, whether through Mao’s “re-education” programs, self-imposed exile (or a return to China from exile), or unforeseen death. There is a huge sense of loss of both actual lives and the freedom to choose how to live a life. The non-linear structure works well to shape the holes in knowledge, from the very beginning when Marie in the modern-day speaks of her father’s abandonment of her and her mother: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”

Thien’s prose is richly woven, with philosophical interludes that help ground the narrative in contexts of music and language and mathematics. But the main thread through the story is the Book of Records, a episodic tale that is distributed by people transcribing the chapters by hand and passing them along, the copies scattering themselves around the country and beyond. It becomes a way of communication, as transcribers will insert clues for others into the story with slight edits, like by using different Chinese characters for certain words to access different meanings of the words. The book is an argument that nothing can ever be truly lost.

The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.