Now and then, I’ll find an author whose works I enjoy more than understand. Chinese magic realist/surrealist Can Xue is such a writer. I enjoy the density of unease she packs into commonplace language. In twenty words she can provide a sense of disquiet that takes hours to shake.
I could give you the Wikipedia view, that her work forgoes the sociopolitical realism of many contemporary Chinese authors in favor of casual violence and unsettling imagery. Like I know dick about post-Mao literature. All I know is she freaks me out.
Can Xue, penname for Deng Xiaohua, means “dirty snow that won’t melt.” A more perfect pseudonym I couldn’t imagine. This two-character poem aptly describes her style, imparting the feeling of polluted winter. That which falls from the sky clean and bright will later cling to the streets in an industrial district, all slush and soot.
Aspiring writers are often told, “Write what you know.” I can’t help but wonder if Can Xue would agree or find the notion offensive. On the one hand, she admits that in her stories there’s a diffused autobiographical element, but says it would be a mistake to look for specific correlation between her fiction and her life. She repeatedly says she writes from the unconscious. Writing, for her, is exclusively an examination of an internal landscape. Maybe she’d say, “Write what you don’t quite know,” instead.
Contrasting her stories with those of Gabriel García Márquez, she says: “He writes mostly about the outside world. I’m not as interested in the external world. I expel all outside forces in my works.” While I can’t say I agree with her assessment of García Márquez, the statement sums up her priorities pretty nicely. García Márquez can be a lush and emotional writer. Can Xue’s approach is one of intellectual seclusion.
In her short work, she’s absorbed some of the mystery and concision of Borges and shares Kafka’s talent for creating an atmosphere of unspecified danger (and I must admit, Borges and Kafka are also writers I don’t always understand). Her lyrical swiftness reminds me sometimes of Calvino, but with none of his lightness.
Intimacy between people never quite works in her stories and self-examination is either microscope or telescope. Communication is rendered absurd or unfulfilling, more an exchange of non sequiturs than conversation. Characters drift along, so isolated they may as well be ghosts. In some cases, they are ghosts and just don’t know it yet.
For example, in Yellow Mud Street, her earliest novella, one character says, “They say a woman is dead. Her arms were chopped off and thrown by the riverside. I rushed over there for a look this morning, but they were nowhere to be found. Someone must have spread a rumor.” To this, another character says, “How scary! There’s no end to this rain. I simply can’t sleep well.”
Yellow Mud Street begins and ends with a narrator looking for a long-gone street in a screwed up industrial town where the one and only factory makes large ball bearings but no one knows what they’re used for. What isn’t clear is why the narrator would ever want to find the street. It is, by all accounts, a lifeless and indistinct place at best, and at worst, a decomposing nightmare in which the floodwaters of Chang Jiang pour out of David Lynch’s ears. It’s even nastier than Tacoma.
“Yellow Mud Street was long and narrow,” she writes in the beginning of the second chapter. “Both sides were jammed with a variety of dwarf houses, all tilted and slanting: houses with brick walls or board walls; with straw roofs or tile roofs; with three windows or two windows; with doors facing the street or facing away from the street; houses with or without front stoops, with or without yards, and so on.” This is a technique she employs frequently. She meanders back and forth between vague contradictions until an unformed sense of place is implied without actually describing anything specific.
As the story progresses, she builds on the feeling of shifting reality and takes it to dark extremes. The people of Yellow Mud Street become monstrous through indifferent depravity. None of it ever really matters. The old woman who makes wine of cockroaches, the ghost who may or may not cut off people’s ears, the mad dogs, headless corpses and fly-eaters all the horrors of Yellow Mud Street are presented in flat affect.
Strangest of all the inconsequential elements: Wang Zi-guang. He may or may not have been a person. May or may not have been a character. Might have been the relative of Wang Si-ma, someone who also probably didn’t exist. Wang Zi-guang comes to town and people get agitated about him but never fully decide if he is a person. They tell each other, “The image of Wang Zi-guang is an ideal for us Yellow Mud Street people. Our life will be greatly changed from now on.” Only nothing changes. The nightmare continues to balance the banal and the horrifying.
Articles I’ve read say that the book is deeply political. I dunno. If futility and rot are political topics, then I guess Yellow Mud Street is a manifesto. All I know is it’s disconcerting. And I enjoy, now and then, a good concert-dissing.
Even if I don’t really know what the hell is going on in Can Xue’s stories, I think that I know that with work like hers, not knowing is the whole point.