From setting to style, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds is one of those amazing novels that simply defies categorization. ‘Comedy fantasy’ about the shortest one can describe it without descending into broader, vague descriptions, it is a wan term that doesn’t come close to clueing the reader in just how unique the novel is. A success, Hughart looked to continue the story of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in 1988 with The Story of the Stone. The humor returning in full form yet the story taken in a new, equally singular direction, the follow-up it is every bit the success of the original.
Set once again in a “China that never was”, The Story of the Stone, like Bridge of Birds, remains a wildly fantastical parallel to the Middle Kingdom. The clever Master Li (the man with “a slight flaw to his character”) along with the young, strong Number Ten Ox are now a team, thus when a monk from a local monastery comes to the two’s home, telling of an inexplicable murder that occurred in the cloisters, the pair set out to investigate. Discovering an apparently forged and therefore useless ancient manuscript beside the body, Master Li turns to rumors of the Laughing Prince having been at the scene. The ghost of an evil prince who died centuries earlier, Master Li and Number Ten Ox dig into the Prince’s opulent tomb, only to have the intrigue heighten in what they find. A trip to the capital required to answer further questions, the ethereal Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn join the team. Master Li hot on the scent, he rides Number Ten’s shoulders, looking to get to the heart of it all: a mysterious grey stone.
Flashing like a fish through water, The Story of Stone retains if not expands Huhgart’s talent for effortless, off-kilter storytelling. The story secretly formulaic at heart, the reader is never let on. Kept perpetually distracted by the wildly humorous asides, Master Li’s banter, and the zig-zag of esoterica, the reader is guided gently along, enjoying every moment of what would be a standard “Indiana Jones-esque investigation into the secrets of a numinous object” in the hands of most other authors.
For certain there is a tiny crowd of social justice freaks standing on a street corner somewhere, chanting “Cultural appropriation! Cultural appropriation!” at The Story of the Stone. A big, fat raspberry to them. Hughart is a scholar of Chinese history and culture, and for as much as the novel leans toward the comedic side (drunkenly so), it is imbued with a wealth of detail, both overt and sublte, that is anything but denigrating. In fact, the novel is pure delight at the story level and potentially motivational at the meta level for the reader interested in Hughart’s source material. The story does play fast and loose, thus I condescend to mention it is set in “the China that never was”, indicating the distance from reality the creation is intended to be taken at. (But we can still hear those freaks chanting: “To each writer their own! They can only create material inherent to their identity! To each writer their own! They can only…”)
Cao Xueqin’s A Dream of Red Mansions is one the four (and only four) canonicial novels of classic Chinese literature. Known largely by that title in the West, in China it is also known by a few other titles, one of which is, not coincidentally enough, The Story of the Stone. Hughart’s style, plot, characterization, etc. the opposite end of the spectrum from Cao’s, Hughart’s story nevertheless utilizes the titular object of Cao’s novel to triumphant, fantastical effect. Like his extrapolation of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl legend in Bridge of Birds, Hughart takes the framing device of A Dream of Red Mansions and converts it to his own devising. Located at the center rather than beginning and end, the stone, the writing on it, and its mysterious hold on people are the central mystery to be solved, something which the final fifty pages of the novel does in flying colors—and silks, and energies, and gods, and…
In the end, The Story of the Stone is more utterly unclassifiable, and utterly enjoyable storytelling from Barry Hughart. Abstruse humor, dynamic plotting and characters, fresh scenes and settings, witty banter—it’s a wealth of fun, the next page always holding an easter egg. Master Li and Number Ten Ox are back, and their adventures are every bit as engaging as Bridge of Birds—and every bit informed by Hughart’s wealth of knowledge on the Middle Kingdom. Easy recommendation: If you enjoyed the first novel, you will enjoy the second.