By Sarah Osman
Author and journalist Massoud Hayoun’s novel Building 46 probes behind the air-brushed image of China’s capital city to offer a fascinating (and incisive) look into the everyday lives of Beijing dwellers.
Building 46 by Massoud Hayoun. Darf Publishers , 240 pages, $16.95.
Despite being one of the most populous cities on Earth, Beijing has maintained a shroud of mystery. Tourists who visit the city are usually funneled into methodically pre-planned tours. Much like Egypt, China dates back thousands of years but visitors often think of it in terms of branded landmarks — but there is far more to the country than the Great Wall. Author and journalist Massoud Hayoun’s novel Building 46 probes behind the air-brushed image of China’s capital city to offer a fascinating (and incisive) look into the everyday lives of Beijing dwellers.
The first volume in the the Ghorba Ghost Story Series, Building 46 follows Sam Saadoun, a gay Algerian-American from Los Angeles who, after a glorious summer in Beijing, decides to go back and study there for a year. During his golden vacation, Sam found a close knit group of friends. He made a particularly deep connection with Sun, an attraction that made him want to come back to the city in the first place. But when he returns, he quickly learns that Sun has a girlfriend and that his friends were superficial at best. He ends up alone, wandering around the streets of Beijing like he is in a sad existential movie.
However, Sam doesn’t remain lonely for too long. He makes an eccentric friend, Sandra, who fancies herself a hot socialite. She takes Sam around and they explore the various nightclubs of the city. He befriends the local bootleg DVD seller, who introduces him to esoteric French films. He even helps one of his professors research how local Chinese folks really feel about socialism (Sam fails at this mission). All of these interactions are used to dig deeper under the surface of life in Beijing. Hayoun never treats any of his story’s characters with colonialist condescension: each is a fully fleshed out, distinctive personality. One of Sam’s most intriguing new friends are women: one is Meifeng, a local waitress who tells him about her life growing up in a small town before moving to Beijing to make more money. Meifeng’s straightforward revelations about how badly her boss mistreats her and her fellow employees is a critique of Chinese culture, but it also draws connections to how workers around the world are exploited. Much of what makes Building 46 successful is how Hayoun mirrors Eastern and Western worlds. The culture and languages might be different, but the indignities of class are universal.
The ghost aspect of the narrative revolves around Building 46, next to the building that houses Sam and many other foreign students. He becomes enamored with Building 46’s enigmatic ping pong room, located deep in the structure’s bowels. He wonders why the game room is sealed off and learns that a murder was committed there. His detective instincts are aroused; he’s determined to figure out exactly what happened – especially when he starts to hear weird noises at night from Building 46. No spoilers here, but there is a tragic center at the center of this ghost story, a crime that reflects the precariousness of LGBTQ+ culture in China. As he pursues his investigation, Sam begins to examine his own sexuality, and he learns that love in Beijing is even more complicated than it is in America.
Building 46 is much more than a compelling ghost story. It’s a coming-of-age story whose revelation of prejudice weaves together two very different cultures.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman