Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. —Joseph Schreiber
Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Open Letter Books, 2017
$16.95, 361 pages
It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.
Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.
She has since published collections of short fiction, novels, essays and literary criticism, including works of commentary on Kafka, Borges, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Italo Calvino, and Bruno Schulz. While echoes of these writers can be heard in the distance, her own writing defies direct comparison to any other, and, as a woman writing avant-garde literature in China, she breaks all conventions. Many male Chinese writers have been especially hostile to her work, and to the irrational style of her self-described “soul literature.”
Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. Characters may respond with fear, complacency, curiosity—or some shifting mixture of emotion. Reactions can fluctuate without notice, leaving the reader—and frequently the protagonists—questioning what has happened. The multiple storylines are rarely fully resolved, while some disappear altogether without further comment.
In an essay for Music & Literature, Nell Pach presents a critical key to accessing Can Xue’s literary world:
Like the narrating beastie of the title story in her 2011 collection Vertical Motion, she has found not just a new direction but a new dimension to move in, a realm where conscious beings experience space, time, and each other unbound from the old rules. Can Xue moves through this new world as guide; she offers it to the reader as an aesthetic event. Properly received, she says, her work opens readers up to affect and intuition. With this otherwise dormant aesthetic logic “activate[d],” each reader can “find the structure inside himself and facilitate the structure to be in an agreement with the work—gradually.”
This approach, to look for structure within oneself, rather than expecting to trace it out in the text on the page, is especially critical for the reading of her longer works. When I first attempted to navigate Can Xue’s 2015 BTBA-winning The Last Lover, I filled pages and pages with notes, determined to follow the apparent logic as if losing the scent would leave me hopelessly stranded. Letting go and allowing the scenes to unfold before me was a revelation, leading to an exhilarating experience unlike any other. I fell under Can Xue’s spell. I became a convert.
Can Xue is not interested in ordinary reality, her domain lies in the dream world of the soul. As such, Frontier, is not a novel that lends itself to a concise, or even sensible synopsis. That is not to say that there is not a story of sorts, but it appears with abrupt shifts in perspective, in time and place, in remembering and forgetting. There are over a dozen primary characters, with a handful more who play secondary roles. Identity is sometimes amorphous. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, least of all the isolated city in which it is set.
Pebble Town, is an enigmatic place, it draws people to it, but even the residents are unable to firmly grasp the town in its entirety. They muse about its nature, marvel at its fresh air, wonder what kind of magical place it is. Situated somewhere in northern China, next to the magnificent Snow Mountain, the location is necessarily ambiguous. The town stands on the frontier—but, the frontier of what? It is described as a border town; venturing beyond its boundaries may lead to farmland, or wasteland, to the foothills of the mountain, or at a greater distance, to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One thing that is clear is that it is a relatively new community, a town that has been conceived and constructed in this once desolate and remote location, a town dreamed into being. And the boundary between reality and the world of illusion is shaky and unstable. Wolves, bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of birds and other creatures appear and disappear, an elusive tropical garden is suspended in the air, rooms expand and contract, objects exhibit changing qualities, and the ground emits sounds and energies.
If Pebble Town and its immediate environs form the connecting tissue of Frontier, coming to an understanding of its essence feels like something akin to piecing together the reports of an elephant offered by the fabled group of blind men. Those who potentially would know the most—the director of the Design Institute, her African assistant Ying, and the ancient mysterious gardener—share little or nothing of their roles or experiences in the creation or maintenance of this place. Even the work of the Institute itself is murky. The town has already been designed and constructed, but people still busy themselves within its bleak confines.
The central character is Liujin. We first meet her as a thirty-five-year-old woman, living alone and working for a textile merchant in the market. She was born on the frontier and, as such, is innately sensitive to the flora and fauna, and to many of the odd sensations and occurrences in her home and garden. But she can be seemingly blind to presences others can sense. Deeply introspective, she frequently focuses on her own confused attractions to those she encounters, especially Sherman, a man who frequents her market stall. (Many of the names have been changed, with the author’s permission, from the Chinese originals—typically to a Western name with similar sound or meaning.)
Liujin’s parents, José and Nancy, were drawn to Pebble Town from distant Smoke City, to work at the Design Institute. Nancy settles in quickly, but José has more difficulty. However, the arrival of their daughter, an intense, bright, colicky baby, drives Nancy to take refuge at the Institute, while childcare responsibilities fall to José and Qiming, the middle-aged janitor at the staff guesthouse who is smitten with the child. Father and daughter share a close bond and a curious sensitivity that continues to mature as Liujin grows older. Late one night, after they have moved into their own home, she calls out to her mother:
“In the kitchen. There’s a hole at the base of the wall there. Maybe a fox made it.”
Liujin felt her way to the kitchen. No light was on there, either. Her father was sitting on a small recliner.
“I couldn’t sleep, anyhow, so I’m keeping watch here. I want to see if anything sneaks out through this hole.”
“Dad, you must mean comes in.”
“No, I meant what I said—sneaks out. There are some weird creatures in this house. I’m not sure what they are.”
Liujin sat down on a stool. She and her father were worried. The wind poured in from that hole. They shifted their position in order to shelter from the wind.
“On a windy night like this, they probably won’t go out,” Father said.
José glanced absentmindedly at his daughter, who was sitting beside him. He noticed that his little girl was growing quieter over the years. Too quiet for her age. Sometimes he wondered if her previous impetuosity now had truly disappeared. As he watched, his daughter’s shadow began wobbling and separating into a few parts. When he looked hard, the parts took the form of a person again. Liujin’s body could break up in the dark (perhaps he was only hallucinating). He’d seen this happen several times, and each time it surprised him. Why had she cried all night long when she was a baby? Was she scared? José’s insomnia gradually worsened. Somehow Liujin became aware of her father’s nighttime activity and began keeping him company. José sighed: a daughter was close to one’s heart. A boy could never be the same.
Years later, long after her parents have returned to their hometown, Smoke City, Liujin continues to be haunted by thoughts of her father, though it is now her mother with whom she maintains written correspondence. She often thinks of her parents in the faraway smog bound city she has never seen. There is a searching, a longing for completeness that seems to drive her, but she does not appear to know what she is looking for and it is likely that an answer, if any, will be found by following spiritual intuition rather than reason. One could say that Can Xue’s characters exist in her fiction the way her readers are invited to approach it.
There are many others inhabiting this dreamlike world who cross paths directly or indirectly. They include the ailing Lee and his pessimistic wife, Grace, a couple who arrived at the Institute a year before Luijin’s parents, and Sherman’s daughter, Little Leaf and her Holland-obsessed boyfriend, Marco. Enchanted personalities also appear in Pebble Town, like Roy, the ageless boy few people can see, and the alluring shepherdess, Amy, who comes from a village on the slopes of Snow Mountain. Early in the novel, the third person narrative perspective changes with each chapter, but as time goes on, the focus will shift between two or more characters, per chapter. Occasionally, a fleeting glimpse is offered into the thoughts of those who are otherwise known only through their engagement with others, while some will remain obtuse, mysterious, even mythical in nature.
To consider Liujin as the main character is primarily to say that it is her perspective that dominates, we spend more time with her and know her better—in so far as she knows herself—but it would be misleading to assume that her story is the backbone of a directed narrative path. The real question that surfaces through the actions and interactions that shape this novel is: What is the nature of existence at the frontier? What is distinct and disorienting about the world Can Xue creates is the absence of an overriding philosophical, or literary mandate. Her allegorical, fantastic creation seems to come from another, more intuitive, organic space that invites open meditation and speculation. Thus, reading her becomes a viscous experience that seems to expand as time passes, rather than becoming more focused and conclusive. In the end, one is left with a lingering sense of potentiality, as ideas continue to percolate and stir the imagination.
It is reasonable to suggest that it is Can Xue’s singular temperament that gives her work its necessary cohesion. She sees herself as a performer, an experimenter, a manipulator of creative forces. During the writing process, she holds to a rigid discipline, attending to her physical well-being and sitting down to write for one hour a day. She does not reread or edit her work. She is admittedly improvising rather than writing to a pre-determined end, allowing the “meaning” to reveal itself—typically after the work is complete. Granted this approach permits the occurrence of odd inconsistencies and explains the unresolved storylines, but taken as a whole, the result is a piece of fiction that more naturally and organically captures the strange, shifting, fantastic atmosphere of dreams.
In her enthusiastic and informed introduction, Iranian-American writer, Porochista Khakpour, suggests that her friend and mentor (who often refers to herself in the third person) is:
. . . almost more medium than artist, a vessel rather than a generator, creation being relegated to its perhaps most logical state: the mystical. “In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.”
She has, then, channeled her self-directed education in the Western canon, through an original physical and mental routine, to produce a literature that is truly her own. As an accomplished and mature work with a truly engaging cast of characters, set in a community perched on the borders of everyday reality and whatever lies beyond, Frontier contains a world well worth exploring. However strangely disconcerting it can feel to surrender to the psychic geography of Can Xue’s fictional landscape, if you remember that your own dream-logic may well your best guide, the journey can be endlessly rewarding and entertaining.