Can Xue – Quicksand Mirrorbox: What happens if you use your own spear against your own shield?

 The Last Lover by Can Xue trans. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale Margellos, July 2014) Reviewed by Nell Pach

Can Xue, The Last Lover, Trans. by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. Yale Margellos, 2014.

The best descriptor for Can Xue’s latest novel, The Last Lover, is that it is unlike, well, anything else. The Beijing-based author calls her fiction “soul literature.” It probably sounds audacious; it’s more audacious than it sounds. Nor does she shy away from what the term implies about the stakes of the numerous short stories and several novels she has published since the 1980s. Her “stereoscopic stories” are not just one more postmodernist innovation in narrative; the cognitive adjustment they require from readers, she says in a 2010 interview, is nothing short of an epistemological revolution: “Every reader of modernist literature,” if the reader is qualified, “must do what Copernicus did in his time, which is turn one’s direction of thinking around by looking for the structure of time and space in one’s soul when you are reading a work. Only in this way can you enter into the work and grasp the structure.” The turn made, however, is away rather than toward the truth-assessing standards of the scientific revolution, the self-verifying principles of rationality and scientific method, logic that “covers the deeper logic in the works and induces obstructions.” 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.” Such roles are perhaps not unusual for revolutionary writers. Gordon Teskey argues that John Milton’s work anticipated a new role for the poet as “shamanic” visionary, a channel for the spiritual in an increasingly “post-theological” society, and it would seem that Can Xue has taken up a similar function in an era become, as John McClure has called it, post-secular. The vocabulary of secular humanism and dogmatic religion alike prove inadequate in writerly attempts to say something about reality; the previous century saw the explosion of magic realist fiction, texts where daily life and the fantastic filter through each other. The continued development of a genre that steps away from straight realism seems not just likely but, paradoxically, necessary for effective artistic representations of the real and the human. The Last Lover, at once alien and familiar in its casual miracles, its people and things that blink in and out of solid existence, and its radical reconsideration of subjectivity, reads like an inaugural, or at least transformative, text. Call it magic virtual realism.
We are perhaps overdue for a literary approach to this new form of human experience. Most of us now live substantial portions of our lives within a cyber-sphere of kaleidoscoping stories, dialogue, and images. We waft in from all parts of the analog world to hold either infinitesimal or prolonged intercourse with people who appear, like us, out of nowhere; we friend them, fight them, not infrequently doubt their existence or aspects thereof. During the day, wherever we are present in body, many of us take every free moment to browse on phones, effectively stepping out; in the evenings we ignore our spouses to check our devices, to don other personas and perhaps foster curious intimacies and enmities with faraway usernames. We share moments of feeling we don’t understand, we slide into oblivion or obliviousness with a click. We have come perhaps closer than ever to something that resembles a dreamscape in sober waking life, a communal unconscious that is, improbably, woven tight with the world of technology, the allegedly objective scientific “real,” and all that the words evoke for us—our sacred secular narratives of rationality, progress, and the individual. The practical, commonsense experience of reality has become tenuous. With distilled reports beamed from half a planet away and made flat and unreal, frequently taken in via favored recreational devices and abandoned with a click or a button for more diverting content, the casual news consumer has regular use for the questions that theorist Tzvetan Todorov associates with readers of fantastic narratives: Did that really happen? Did I understand it right?
The Last Lover renders something like this new dimension of conflated physical and metaphysical experience, in all its volatility and, indeed, its frustration. It is arguably a singular accomplishment; most authorial comparisons will seem, to those who read the novel, laughably off. Can Xue perhaps sits best with other literary loners—Kafka and Calvino (she has written criticism on both), Borges; a more contemporary resemblance might be seen in the work of Nigeria novelist Ben Okri, whose Famished Road moves similarly through an existentially unstable, spirit-permeated landscape. The Last Lover’s non-sequitur conversations, muddled etiologies, and dissolving identities also recall Samuel Beckett’s Molloy trilogy:
“I think,” she directed her words to Reagan. “I think Martin is like my sister. Someday he will swim into the sea wearing your clothes . . . Mr. Reagan, have you noticed that everyone on the farm looks the same? Only people harboring the same thoughts come here.”
“There are two crows in the pockets of my hunting gear,” Martin shrugged, and began to whistle.
Rest assured that it makes only slightly more sense in context. Plenty will find this wearisome; scrupulous attempts to track character history or match problems and mysteries to logical resolutions won’t reward readers here. Conventional narrative promises are seldom delivered upon—if there’s a Chekhovian gun on the wall in the first act, it may be fired in the third, but it will probably (to take an example from The Last Lover) be fired into the leg of its mysterious owner by his cook, at the owner’s own never-explained behest, as he approaches his house across vast grasslands, riding a leopard. This ostentatious arrival is business as usual in the novel, and a flailing Joe says as much to the owner moments before witnessing it: “Whenever you grasp hold of some object, other objects all change into unreal things.” Apparent seconds later, after his interlocutor has somehow managed to transport himself far from the house for his self-arranged shooting, Joe finds that “the scene from a moment ago . . . dissolve[s] like a hallucination.” Scenes may be linked, but the transitions are as unapologetically discontinuous as a film montage, or a sudden browsing redirect from one webpage to another; the reader is no more privileged here than Joe himself.
The novel begins in a never-named city of a never-named but apparently Western country. The barely-named Joe is the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, though the point of view shifts around, flicking through characters who feel like variously shaded versions of one another. Their daily lives are almost parodically humdrum, with interspersed moments of lurid horror all the more striking for the fact that they sometimes seem intended to slip by on the first pass. The shocking, the absurd, and the luminous are set off by a scrupulously controlled style and diction, steady throughout Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s stark, resonant translation. This is what we have come to expect of Can Xue: an unwaveringly lucid, reasonable voice delivering fever dreams. Joe is a longtime manager at the Rose Clothing Company, though his real life is in the “kingdom of his stories” built from the books he reads during work hours. This reading has become a project “to reread all the novels and stories he’d ever read in his life, so that the stories would be connected together” in order to allow him, as if hyperlinked, to “simply pick up any book and move without interruption from one story to another,” and to blot out the “outer world.” When we meet him he has recently acquired the ability to “remain immersed in his stories” even while dealing with customers. The story kingdom has even attained a degree of spatial reality in the form of a treed square, across which wander the characters of Joe’s books, frequently kimono-clad Easterners, but also occasionally the “real” people that Joe knows; though he creates it as a retreat, it has the capacity to become a communal space where narratives intersect with readers, and isolated readers approach each other through narratives.
This power is ambivalent, however, given that it has also divided Joe from his wife Maria, moving them apart “little by little onto different paths,” though a “subtle communication”—never quite specified—persists between them. Like a reimagined Penelope, Maria presides faithfully over the house Joe often leaves on business, though the tapestries she weaves are not part of a ploy to fend off suitors but an end in themselves, sublime designs that repel and draw customers, one of whom says a tapestry “gave him a feeling ‘like dropping into an abyss’” but buys it anyway: “Evidently he wished to experience what is was like to drop into an abyss.” Later, when Joe embarks on an uncertain journey toward “ancient eastern” Country C—for which it is of course tempting to read China, though China is mentioned elsewhere in the novel by name—Maria’s weaving becomes a material telepathy between them where Joe’s travels register cryptically, though this read on his progress is muddled at best. Attended by two beloved and vaguely sinister African cats and her son and confidant Daniel—a kind of homebody Telemachus who, unbeknownst at first to Joe, has returned from boarding school to secretly live with a neighbor—Maria administers a domestic space that seems to constitute its own miraculous ecosystem. Roses bloom year-round in a garden tended daily by Daniel, the cats conduct enough electricity to give possibly dangerous shocks, and an awareness runs through the house as if through a living thing:
[Maria] was pleased with [Joe’s] frequently leaving home for a few days at a time [ . . . because of] a thirst for change. Every time Joe went away for a spell, the house grew clamorous, on the brink of something happening. For example, at this moment she heard the two cats in the backyard shrieking in a frenzy; a large flock of sparrows followed them onto the steps; and in the southern wind there was a cloth flapping with a pa pa sound. Even her tapestry loom downstairs began making a rhythmic noise.
Like Joe’s, her hobby has become so mesmerizing that she has recently cultivated a knack for stepping out metaphysically:
She was . . . often able to enter an unusually intense, approximately hallucinatory state. At first this state only occurred when she was weaving tapestries, but slowly things became more complex. In the past two years, she suspected she’d become like her husband, sinking into the snare of “mental journeys” while this son, her house, and her son Daniel accompanied her . . . Sometimes Maria was so frustrated by this feeling of unreality she wanted to scream. Sometimes, instead, she was extremely content.
As in Joe’s square, there is the possibility of communality here, with the present, corporeal living and also with entities whose provenance and being is less sure: ancestors come to scold and advise Maria. Like Joe’s, Maria’s personal world is pronouncedly ambivalent: private and public, controlled and overwhelming, social and isolating.
“Mental journeys,” half pilgrimage and half chase, have all the solidity of the novel’s actual removes, and easily become confused with or implicated in its many episodes of “real” travel. Space is disconcertingly passable in the novel’s physical world as well, and characters can slip—at times imperceptibly—between the “real” world and their various virtual ones. No one involved seems surprised or perturbed by this everyday spatial flux. Walking to work, Joe sees “an abyss open in the sidewalk ahead of him, and he walked toward it, thinking perhaps it would lead him into the web of the story he had recently constructed.” This particular capacity to pass through to other places by subterranean means repeats over and over in a novel full of mysterious digging, excavating, coring the permeable earth—at one point Lisa, the wife of Joe’s boss Vincent, tells her husband that she is “a drilling crew.” Easy enough to read these surface mutilations as attempts to access some kind of common underground, an unknown cavern where people can truly share consciousness, though it is not always successful: “Vincent, are you still excavating that gully?” Lisa teases. “There are more and more little fish, little shrimp.” There are also suggestions that perhaps a cultural solidarity or reclamation can be achieved through descents like this, as when migrant worker Ida, a perhaps Filipina employee of the southern rubber tree plantation run by Joe’s client Reagan, finds a way, with the help of a compatriot, to escape Reagan’s ambiguously predatory attentions:
The place where she wanted to return was her old home. In her imagination it was a vague shadow. Actually, she didn’t want to take a train there, either. She wanted to take a shortcut, and the shortcut was one of those dark holes in the bar that Jade had told her about.   
One day, when music reverberated through the bar, Jade guided her into a dark hole . . . Ida’s feet slid, then she fell with Jade into a hole . . . Jade was not in the same hole as she, but in one next to her. When Ida called, she made a muddled echo, as if she were almost asleep. Surely Ida stood on the mud of her hometown. That softness could not be forgotten in a lifetime.
Place is, needless to say, uncertain as well; characters hail from a vast array of countries, real and fictional, evoked in terms that are, by turns, matter-of-fact and romantic. The East rears up again and again in the minds and experiences of inhabitants of Joe’s Country A, figured as both an unbridgeably far Other and an inextricable immanence, occupying the West and occupied by it. The former version works on Joe when he feels a pull toward the aestheticized East—”red palace walls and amber tiles”—but he also becomes gradually aware of the latter through his books, sensing that “the story he’d been reading, set in the East, and the West, where he was in person, were converging on each other to form a separate, alternative space.” As an idea and as a place, “East” is monolithic here but multiple elsewhere, differentiated into regions and countries, broken into individuals of varying depth. Against the depiction of Ida as an exploited laborer in some sort of colonized south—an ambivalent echo, perhaps, of gritty Marxist-minded realism—other Easterners stand at the fringes of The Last Lover, often veiled (occasionally literally as well) by what seems to be a pall of orientalist Easternness projected onto them by the central characters: they are inscrutable, passive, seductive. They remain, too, somehow only virtual, separate even in presence, as Joe discovers during an encounter with a captivating “white-haired Eastern woman” who appears across a dry river from him. Dressed in clothing “a bit like a kimono [and] a bit like the short dresses of ancient China,” she gives Joe the feeling that his “soul [is] spirited away from his body,” but he is told that she is, as it were, off the playable map:
“The person over on that side isn’t real.” The bookstore owner knit his brow, spitting out the sentence as if it hurt him.
“I had also sensed this. What a pity. Where is she from?”
“She is my former wife.” . . .
“Why isn’t she a real person?” Joe asked the bookstore owner, his voice revealing his tender thoughts.
“Because whichever way you go, you still can’t reach her.”
Joe defies this warning and manages a conversation, during which the woman tells him that his ethereal Korean business associate Kim “is not a real person,” but gives another explanation for her ex-husband’s similar account of her:
“Some people are an unsolvable mystery to other people. If he lives with that sort of person, he will gradually disappear. Have I answered your question? If you go to Ito’s bookstore late at night, you will hear him wrestling inside and the books falling from the shelves.” . . .
The owner of the bookshop was named Ito. Joe had never noticed this before. So he was Japanese? His wife, this woman before him, was Japanese? They came here from the distant East to start a business, then they separated? Human hearts are frightful.
The scene swerves suddenly from masque-like tableau into middle-class domestic drama, with Joe surprised at the Easternness that hides within his own unremarkable associates. The East-West gulf telescopes down into the gulf between marriage partners, the unavoidable gulf between two people—equally pedestrian, equally exotic experiences of an Other.
The marriage dyad emerges subtly over the course of the novel as a constant point of interest in Can Xue’s meditations. The move is an amusing one; it might be read as a send-up of realist preoccupation with the theme, from Austen to Franzen. Couples proliferate in The Last Lover, repeating, with differences, the incommensurabilities of Joe and Maria but like them suggesting, too, the possibility of numinous communion. Much has been made, in critical work, of Can Xue’s dissipation of the subject, a breaking-down of the individual often read as liberating. Certainly, identity often proves bizarrely interchangeable in this novel—Maria only recognizes a taxi driver as Joe at the end of the ride; the Eastern woman who tantalizes Vincent and Reagan is alternately “Arab,” “Chinese,” and male; Kim surfaces several times to live different lives, or perhaps there are simply several different people named Kim—but subjectivity seems not so much to fall apart as to be distributed differently. Pairs of what we might otherwise call individual subjects move it between them, like stars pulling mass from each other in a companion system. Thought and feeling do not always map neatly to bodies, which seem sometimes to have been left elsewhere, beside the point as they often are in virtual spaces. “People here don’t have bodily suffering,” a beautiful African street-sweeper—identical sister to a street-sweeper in City B—tells Vincent when he comes to the “gambling city” where Lisa’s parents live, parents he has hitherto believed dead, only to be told by his wife that they in fact were but apparently had a few more lives in store: “Even I have died many times . . . You’ll get used to this sort of thing.” Bodies are porous, ill-guarded—the teeming snakes of Reagan’s plantation do not just bite but slither in and out of the bodies of its inmates, and Reagan’s cook shrugs off her telepathic understanding of another farm worker: “In my hometown, there are many people like this . . . They absorb a few things from your body, and they pour a few things into your body.”
Nowhere is this slightly sinister dynamic more at work than between the spouses and other close partners of the novel: a volatile economy of affect circulates, sometimes salutary but also overwhelming, no guarantee of sympathy. Desire swells and ebbs, disembodied, through the text to create unions of bodies and separate them, a terrain of Deleuzian intensities. Two lovers on Reagan’s plantation follow Reagan into his room and blithely become amorous in front of him; the cook complains that “a new round of desire” must have risen in the house. Joe avoids Maria’s bedroom because he fears “the abyss of her desire,” though unaired desire outs in other intersubjective ways: a version of Kim later explains a terrible scream to Joe as the result of “sexual repression” among locals: “For a year already, everyone has suppressed their desire.” Private mental worlds allow seemingly estranged couples to make startling connections, proving that the boundary between minds is not insurmountable, though it is often too daunting to breach. Vincent’s understandings of Lisa come mediated through a fantasy of the alluring Chinese woman, inventing a mind that lies open to his in a way that Lisa’s, to his consternation, doesn’t: “Vincent imagined the Chinese woman telling him that he should visit the gambling city to figure out a few things about his wife, Lisa. The Chinese woman sat with her back to him. She hadn’t opened her mouth, but Vincent heard her thoughts. They came toward him as a language, and so he formed this statement from her present thought.” Meanwhile, Lisa is “a stoppered bottle” to him even after the visit, the two of them unresolvable into one flesh: “‘Lisa. Oh Lisa, how come I can’t understand even a little of what is in your heart?’ . . . Maybe she was born deep underground!” Moreover, partners are sometimes more inclined to step laterally, to connect affectively with friends rather than lovers—Maria with Daniel; Lisa with Maria, when the two share a nightly “long march” with a spectral Red Army, tugging Lisa away from Vincent: “[H]is wife could communicate with Maria, without their actually meeting. Everything was changing. Even this morning, he could no longer enjoy that strange territory with Lisa through the intercourse of their bodies.” The virtual space sustained between them blinks out.
Reviewers and critics will inevitably ask who the last lover is, and all interpretations will of course only be so many muddy bulwarks to be modified or ignored as the battle moves. Unto the breach, then: Held within the novel’s title seems to be a question that haunts every romance in a world—and an untold host of storytelling traditions as well—infatuated by the theory of the pair marriage bond. Valorized or sneered at, doubted or longed for, ontological or gloomily economic, the enactment of this two-into-one synthesis is what the stories we tell ourselves aim at, turn around, avoid. Permanent communion, intersubjectivity that is no longer intersubjectivity but a kind of dual subjectivity, life shared—we are born into narratives that organize our lives by this marker, the finding of the mate. Who, then, is your last lover? Can it truly be decided in advance? To pick a companion for life is to provide an answer to this question, however unwittingly, to brush consciously or unconsciously against the thought of one’s—utterly singular, as far as we know—death. Have we chosen our last chance at communion—need we have only one, and need it be a spouse? We ask it of each other—am I the last one?
Jeri Griffith, “Navigator,” 18” x 24”, acrylic on canvas, from Odyssey. Used for the cover of one volume of Can Xue's five-volume 残雪短篇全集 / The Complete Short Stories of Can Xue (2014)
It’s a question of bourgeois banality and cosmic moment. The thought seeps in at the end of the novel, during Maria’s and Lisa’s nocturnal search for their husbands through a phantasmal graveyard in a shared dream. Maria finds Lisa, who is introduced to the novel in a jealous panic over Vincent’s dalliance with the Eastern woman, sitting on Vincent’s grave, though he is not buried there: “‘Not yet, he is still roaming outside. I sit on top of the grave and my heart is at peace.’” The graveyard fills with neighbors, who seem to have to come to confirm their own lastness: “Casting her eyes into the distance, Maria saw them squatting one by one on the grave mounds, placing their lanterns on the tombstones. The graveyard seemed vast and limitless. Lisa said that each one squatted on the grave of his or her ‘beloved.’” Maria shies away from such a resolution, and is left the next night, with Joe still gone on his trip to Country C, with the sense of a tentative union, a kind of companionable neighboring:
She felt that Joe was nearby, sitting behind a book, beside a little stream. He had taken off his shoes and stretched his bare feet into the black water. Maria thought, Joe would not leave her again. How good. In the house built on the foundations made by her ancestors she, Daniel, and Joe, this family, were starting their own long march. They were going to bring back to life those long ago stories. This would be a fine thing! But she feared her husband’s body was forever disappearing from their home.
Does the introduction of the child compromise the lovers? Does the body slip perilously away, subordinated to imposed narratives of family? Maria seems to conclude that the “strange territory” of the physical can hold its own: “After so many years, she experienced for the first time the way blood kept relatives together.” Imagined, virtual, narrative worlds settle against the concrete and animal, finally, as Maria walks into the “forest” Joe has raised “over several decades of uninterrupted reading”: “In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness?” So we often ask ourselves, when we consider taking a last lover. Imposed, conventional narrative and unmoored feeling, unmoored being, are perhaps impossibly mixed in us—we take one for the other. We try futilely to sequence maelstroms of cause-effect that rise stereoscopic around us, to declare a first, a last.
Jeri Griffith, “Metamorphosis,” 36” x 60”, acrylic on canvas, from Regions of Identity. Used for the cover of one volume of Can Xue's five-volume 残雪短篇全集 / The Complete Short Stories of Can Xue (2014)
If such a reading seems on its face disappointingly pedestrian for a novel shot through with the mystical and the sublime, it matches the equally commonplace enigma that it serves to probe. At the core of a spousal relationship lies that most ubiquitous and mysterious of binaries: the self-other divide. “A spouse or a lover is your mirror: you see yourself in them, but the two of you are independent,” Can Xue says in an interview with Wasmoen about the novel. “In a certain sense your understanding of him and his understanding of you is imperfect, very imperfect, and this is the inevitable result of your being two free beings. This is the perpetual contradiction of a free world. The lovers become mystified and each has the impulse to explore him or herself.” The possibility of a last lover propels us, dramatically, inward and outward at once, as if inward and outward are interchangeable. Do we want, ultimately, to dissolve or maintain our selves as bounded individuals? At a lower intensity level, our contemporary (virtual) reality exercises the same alternating tidal pulls on us, on the I and you that seem more arbitrary even as we become able to know and say more of ourselves and of each other. In the midst of these rip currents Can Xue gives us, to mix metaphors, a kind of homeopathic cure: a world of writing that gets close to our world of living, a real-unreal where self-other separate but can be said to neighbor each other rather than stand in simple opposition—where even in moments of distinction, the other, or the self, is felt to be near. - Nell Pach

In Can Xue’s prickly and surreal novel The Last Lover, the reader encounters a dizzying array of characters who could all, in theory, be the titular last lover. The characters — pale-eyed businessmen, mystic wives, demonic corporate clients, a beautiful refugee girl with extremely long arms — are tossed around the book’s interconnected stories like colored beads in a kaleidoscope, all roiling with a sexual desire that seems to come out of some dark abyss, much like Can Xue’s writing itself. None of it makes sense: there are writhing snakes and screaming cooks, grotesquely swollen limbs and boys stung repeatedly by bees, and rosebushes that bloom, inexplicably, throughout the year. Yet listing these images does not accurately describe the way the novel unfolds as a performance unfolds; my writing them down will not make the novel happen as, when reading, it happens to you.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
Hour ???: My thoughts are beginning to reflect the structure of Can Xue’s prose. That is, they are starting to disintegrate almost entirely. I catch myself thinking about the hectic flapping of bird wings. I dream about snakes wriggling and showing off their stripes. One character, spending the night on an enormous farm in some nonspecific jungle, dreams of fabulously horny snakes, of small amorous creatures slithering up his pants. The image remains in my memory on a kind of stretchy loop. I cannot even fathom desire as coming from any other place, though in The Last Lover desire seems to spring inexplicably from all kinds of places.
Throughout the novel the only constant sensation is that of sex: heavy, disorienting, thick as mud or syrup, wrapping around arms and legs. Well — there is also the energy that runs, alternatively electric and demonic, through the domestic spaces which populate the novel, strange interiors where cats walk around with bristling fur. The novel crackles with these odd undercurrents, which lie below the characters, their interactions, and any notion of plot, which is already worn thin by both the declarative nature of the dialogue and the surreality of its events. It feels very distinctly as though there are many novels beneath the surface of the novel, some too large and unborn to clearly describe.
Each character in The Last Lover seems arbitrarily named; it seems like they happen to be placed in the story according to convenience and each could be swapped out, depending on allegory. They behave as actors or dancers, given unto the roiling moods of the novel itself, and its unruly belly of desire. Perhaps The Last Lover is a deceptive title. I am not certain that there is any last lover, or any lover at all, or that the novel really ends and that there can be a last definitive anything. It’s still with me, in all its kaleidoscopic pieces, not entirely yielding to interpretation, like a puzzling dream one returns to again and again. - Larissa Pham

Can Xue, Five Spice Street, Trans. By Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, Yale Press, 2009.

"No one and nothing may be trusted in Five Spice Street, the first of Can Xue’s full-length novels to be translated into English. In the neighborhood where the story is set—a three-mile-long street actually—nothing is certain. There is no one truth. Doubt overshadows everything. In this story, a dissonant chorus of voices argues, interrupts, disrupts, contradicts, and gossips, forcing everything into flux. Static, distortion, and noise rule here. As “the writer” suggests:
The crowds on Five Spice Street always had to think everything through every which way: they never reached a verdict lightly, and would never give up on a riddle just because they were temporarily stumped: they had to give it hard thought; if they couldn’t solve it, they would keep their eyes open. Sometimes, a small matter could trigger their thoughts for a long time, and another small matter could suddenly enlighten them.Parsing out who said what and why within this cacophonous polyphony is challenging, as Xue’s story is filled with parenthetical intrusions and asides and even the simplest statements are placed in quotes. Rumor and gossip amplified to the nth degree: this is what awaits readers in Five Spice Street. Surrendering to the novel’s style, however, is just the beginning. Beyond lie the fabulist and hyper-erotic elements in the story, the many clues found deep within the narrative, and the novel’s “innumerable nested boxes,” as one character puts it. But once the challenge has been met, you just might burst out into hysterics at the wonderful insanity of it all. You have been forewarned.
Five Spice Street is divided into two sections. The first, “Preliminaries,” is an overview of the major characters, among them Madam X, the Widow, Mr. Q, the lame woman, and the young coal worker. “Preliminaries” depicts their intertwining stories, conflicts, and dilemmas, all of which are obscured by the numerous conflicting accounts. The main character, Madam X, brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s painting of the same name, a portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Parisian socialite, who, after rejecting numerous proposals to be painted, finally agreed to Sargent’s request after realizing it would serve as an opportunity to advance in Parisian society.
The painting, like Madam X, is a study in contrasts, Gautreau’s ivory white skin and her black satin dress, the light from her skin emanating against the russet background, her voluptuous figure and her angular face, the painting’s play of revelation and concealment, control and abandon. The Madam X in Five Spice Street is also a mysterious bundle of contradictions, and surely Xue, like Sargent, employed the name as a way of expressing both anonymity and mystery, as well as raising her own character to the stature of myth, symbol, and archetype. It certainly helps that her namesake was rumored to have been guilty of numerous infidelities. And I wonder if Madam X is also a pseudonym for Can Xue, already a pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, which means “dirty snow.”
There are at least twenty-eight views on Madam X’s age—at one end of the spectrum she’s as young as twenty-two and about fifty at the other—and at least five opinions on Mr. Q’s looks. But there is much more to Madam X than what meets the eye—for instance, her eye. The first time “Mr. Q looked at X’s whole face, he saw only one immense continuously flickering saffron-colored eyeball.” And through the course of their affair the “light waves in her senseless eyes,” whose “intensity can illuminate everything in the universe,” was all he could see. Other fantastic rumors abound about X: She’s suffering from a disease. She has supernatural powers to manipulate people and events at whim. She can force people to their grave. She makes dynamite with the intention of destroying a public toilet. She raises scorpions. There are accounts of her using countless mirrors as a kind of magical portal toward achieving cosmic transcendence. But of course doubts are raised about all of these reports. As for Mr. Q’s looks, he is either ugly, or not, that is, if one subscribes to the Chinese proverb “There’s no such thing as an ugly man.” The consensus, if one may call it that, is that Q is “a large man, either ugly or handsome, or with nothing remarkable about him, with a broad square face, and an odd expression, a little like a catfish.”The rivalry between Madam X and the Widow is one of the novel’s primary plot devices as is the “sex research” they both practice. Madam X’s “dispel boredom movement” (her mysterious system where “spare-time recreation,” one of the many comical euphemisms for sex in this book, is used as a transcendental act) leads to a series of bizarre escapades. One afternoon when “the sky was that kind of sentimental color, without a cloud to be seen, and the edge of the sun is filled with sharp triangles,” Madam X, “lying alone on the beach at the riverside... felt the reality of carnal intimacy.” Aroused, she undressed and then “flew in the burning heat, running around wantonly, wildly.” A few women in the town were “inspired” to mirror her. This leads to the entire town “hugging and kissing everyone they saw, touching everyone all over their bodies. One or two even ‘got on with it’ on the spot. It was a noisy, rollicking scene. Everyone was sweating profusely and breathing hot and heavy like oxen.”Madam X, while largely despised and feared, is often approached for advice, for guidance. Especially in the chapter “Madam X Talks Abstractly of Her Experiences with Men,” we find her in philosophical mode. After laying out her thoughts about the importance of having a mind free of conventional considerations, she says:
Language is also a way of hinting at feelings, because try as hard as you can to communicate your ardor and your dreams to the other, you can’t just show your feelings through action—that isn’t enough. And so you use language. At this time language doesn’t have just the everyday meanings—perhaps it is some simple syllables, some little sounds that have sprouted wings. I can elicit that kind of special language.
The novel’s second section, “The Way Things Are Done,” casts doubt on everything that transpired in section one. The disorientation is extreme, as the first section was itself a shifting kaleidoscope of stories, images, and memories, so disorientating that it’s almost as if a giant reset button had been pressed. The lame woman, in her “official account,” perhaps best reveals the character of Five Spice Street’s second half: “I must tell you again: your imaginary experiences don’t exist. They don’t even have a foreword. All the beginnings you’ve imagined are subjectively trumped up: they’ve resulted from sloppy romantic sentiments spilling over. The real beginning is lost, never to return.”Can Five Spice Street, with its multiplicity of voices, reportage, affidavits, shifting points of view, be termed a “novel”? Conceiving To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf knew that she wanted to draw directly from her own memories and that the work would not correspond to conventional narrative form. In her diary, she wrote: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel.’ ...But what? Elegy?” So what is Five Spice Street? A remarkable prose object? Mirrorbox? Or simply call it “novel,” understanding it to mean “fresh” and “new” as in: Can Xue’s novel approach to writing fiction in Five Spice Street offers the reader a delightful puzzle whose pieces constantly change shape and shatter into ever smaller fragments.
The book is challenging, and deciphering its conclusion, having something to do with “a beautiful wave of the future,” is a task in itself. But the fainthearted may use something the young coal worker said as a guide to understanding the book, or any other “difficult” work of fiction, for that matter: “Sometimes, we have to change our way of thinking and look with brand-new eyes before we can enter into the essence of something. This seems difficult and troublesome, but with hard struggle you can make it.” - John Madera

"There’s an old Chinese fable that goes like this: A weapons vendor at market touts his unbelievable spear (mao)—it can pierce shield (dun)! Then he turns around and talks up his amazing shield—it can withstand any spear! But then a child asks, “What happens if you use your own spear against your own shield?”That tale spawned a noun in Mandarin: maodun—whose meaning falls somewhere between irony and paradox, and implies getting pulled in opposite directions. It’s a pretty good word for what’s been going on with Can Xue (pen name for 55-year-old Chinese writer Deng Xiaohua): The more vigorously she protests that her fiction isn’t political commentary, the firmer the consensus grows among Western critics that it’s a massive indictment of her homeland. Can Xue has had four books of surrealistic, sometimes grotesque short stories translated into English, each volume further cementing her reputation as a radical who offers, in the words of a 1991 New York Times review, “nightmare images of life under a punishing regime.” But Can Xue continues to insist she writes only of her inner world. “Real literature faces the soul,” she tells me, when I interview her with the aid of a translator at Manhattan’s Yale Club during her recent visit to the United States.
What’s going on here? Maybe the American view of China has become so politicized that we inevitably find critique where there is none. Or maybe a writer like Can Xue has to downplay her political themes to placate Beijing, which has suppressed her work in the past. But which is it? The new release of Five Spice Street,written in 1988 and her first full-length novel to be translated in English, is unlikely to resolve the issue.
A reader today might be forgiven for seeing the book as a dead-on portrayal of late-’80s anomie in the People’s Republic of China. With its excavation of rampant mistrust, spying, and carnal jealousy in a tight-knit rural community, Five Spice Street seems to peer through a magnifying glass at the disintegration of Mao’s utopian socialist order. The novel revolves around the ethereal Madam X, a transplant to the eponymous street—she and her husband run a fruit stand there, although it’s said they used to be party officials somewhere. (Is this a veiled reference to the decline in the prestige of the Maoist old guard?) Speculations about Madam X consume her neighbors, and her essential qualities change depending on whom you ask: Perhaps she’s a potent sexual sorceress, but perhaps her private life is completely banal. The denizens of Five Spice Street, who both despise and adulate her, can’t even collectively determine whether she’s 22 or 50 years old. She’s a temptress and a tease, driving the men and women alike wild, although they don’t know if she could even deliver the goods if they managed to possess her. Could Madam X represent that elusive Social Ideal, whether communism or democracy?
Way off, if you ask the Can Xue, who claims she’s operating on a different plane entirely. Calling Five Spice Street her “spiritual biography,” she tells me, the characters all represent her own desires and dissatisfactions, and that Madam X embodies the author’s personal idealized life. According to her, the story has nothing to do with the real world: Naturally she borrows details from daily existence, she says, but these are just “materials for her factory,” where she “weighs down everyday feelings to a deep place, and then retrieves them.” This method is responsible, she says, for the “strange feel” of her prose.
It’s certainly true that the novel is far from naturalistic, although it paints a more concrete, less dreamlike realm than her other translated work so far (Dialogues in Paradise, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas,and The Embroidered Shoes: Stories). But its atmosphere is still an uncanny one of occultism, portents, and metamorphoses. Characters’ eyes in particular are sites of magic—perhaps apt in a neighborhood consumed by voyeurism and rumor. “Flickering waves of light” are said to “radiate from Madam X’s eyes, turning people into grotesque shapes.” Meanwhile Old Woman Jin, a rival of Madam X, looks out of “two fluctuating red orbs, at once bulging out of her eye sockets, and all at once drawing back in.”
With her flair for supernatural-tinged farce, Can Xue is incessantly likened to Franz Kafka. But Five Spice Street even more recalls the output of another Eastern European modernist: the Polish short-story writer Bruno Schulz, whose fabulist tales of rural boyhood are cast in the same lush, earthy tones that resonate in Xue’s novel. Some of her anthropomorphic descriptions— “a puff of fog from a green meteor on the horizon startled the hill” — strike with Schulz’s dark beauty. And both writers’ power lies in their shaman-like ability to animate hyper-local superstitions and fears.
Schulz’s stories also took place against a significant historical backdrop—namely the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And while themes of social decay are ever-present beneath his writing, they never overpower the specificity of his imaginative universe. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for reading Can Xue—her political context shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should it get in the way of appreciating her work for what it is—world-class art." - Eli Epstein-Deutsch

"Who is Madam X? Madam X sells peanuts at the stand with the red-painted sign. Madam X is an occultist, a collector of mirrors and corrupter of neighborhood children. Madam X is a home wrecker. Madam X is a threat to communal harmony and morality. Madam X is a sexual deviant. Madam X is a virgin. Madam X is fifty years old. Madam X is twenty-two. Madam X is having an affair with Mr. Q. Madam X wishes to be famous. Madam X hopes to be forgotten. Madam X is the elected representative of the people of Five Spice Street. Madam X is the wave of the future.
The question of Madam X's identity is at the center of Can Xue's Five Spice Street, a novel that is by turns confounding, comic, and sharp in its portrayal of communal life on a small street in an unnamed country (but which bears an unmistakable resemblance to China). It is a question that is not so much answered as it is endlessly speculated upon by the street's residents, who observe Madam X's activities (Madam X doesn't say much, so they must watch her vigilantly) and then provide their own explanations. As a result, Madam X at first becomes a repository for the people's biases and prejudices. She is thought to be having an affair with a certain Mr. Q, and despite the fact that other residents engage in similarly shady sexual behavior, Madam X is shunned as a degenerate. But by the novel's end, after the people of Five Spice Street have exhausted their speculations, Madam X is honored as a visionary who "represents a society of the future," and she is elected representative of the street.
A tidy plot summary does not begin to capture the novel's tangled versions of reality. The reader sinks into a cacophony of street voices and their competing narratives like a castaway falling into quicksand. An unnamed writer narrates the story, and he reports diligently on the "facts" of the case, trying to reconcile each variation he hears from the residents of Five Spice Street. The first lines are a clue to what follows: "When it comes to Madam X's age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person's guess is as good as another's. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she's about fifty (for now, let's fix it at fifty); at the other, she's twenty-two." Consider yourself warned: it only gets foggier from there.
The spark that sets off this fuse of speculation about Madam X is her alleged affair with Mr. Q. A widow notices Mr. Q's comings-and-goings and soon the whole neighborhood is talking about it. Both have spouses who are "childlike," devoted, and don't seem to care much at all about the rumored affair. Madam X says that she "never laid eyes" on Mr. Q, and one of the neighbors, "a female colleague" of X, explains that "X didn't look at people with her eyes… After she bought the mirrors and microscope from the junk shop, she even announced that her eyes ‘had retired.' That is, except for things in the mirror, she looked at nothing." Euphemisms, such as "spare time recreation" used in place of "sex," are deployed by all residents of Five Spice Street. Everyday conversations are beset with the uneasiness of Orwellian doublespeak.
Mirrors and microscopes, spare time recreation, a main character who can only see reflections in a mirror, and a plot that is riddled with random events and characters who flit in and out of the novel seemingly without purpose (a partial list of such events and characters: the collapse of Madam X's house, Mr. Q's discovery of a bouncing ball, Old Woman Jin's affair with a young mining worker, Old Meng's affairs with various women, a widow's neighbor shitting on her front steps, a lame woman recounting a twenty-three-minute staring contest)—this is dangerous territory. Five Spice Street is a novel about the meanings and sources of identity, about the relationship between the individual and the community, about the gap between public and private selves; it is a critique of narrative storytelling, of relationships of cause and effect, of the idea that anything that springs from the human mind can be called truth. It is a novel that rejects the senses, building its fictional universe by subtracting them. What little the reader can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste on Five Spice Street is ultimately uncertain, ephemeral, subjective. The reader, on this arduous journey with an author who isn't explaining or taking questions, is bewildered.
All of this makes Five Spice Street a challenging, frustrating read, but, as with quicksand, it helps if you don't struggle. The rampant gossip, the maligning of character, the elaborate explanations for mysterious behavior, all bring to mind pre-capitalist-reform China, when even the most innocuous behavior could be taken as subversion and lead to public denunciation by friends, neighbors, or colleagues, followed by a trip to a "reeducation" camp. Although the book is set in an unknown city in an unknown year, it is easy to imagine Madam X's neighbors reporting her to the police or some party apparatus that deals with dissenters and social misfits. But instead of a reeducation camp, Xue devises a hilariously backwards ending. After years of denouncing her, the people of Five Spice Street decide that Madam X is really "ahead of her time," and they elect her the people's representative, a job she does not want. By now her husband has left her and her house is literally falling down, but when she appeals to the government committee in charge of house renovation and construction to have her crumbling house fixed, her applications are taken as a kind of statement on the political system and ignored. Two weeks later the house collapses. The temptation for the reader is to interpret the collapse as symbolic of something—its occurrence is so random, so unaccounted for, it would be hard not to—but it isn't symbolic, it's meaningless. The collapse is the culmination of the trick that Five Spice Street has been playing on the reader all along: on Five Spice Street, nothing means anything." - Brendan Patrick Hughes

In 1988, the final year of China’s post-Mao, pre-Tiananmen “Culture Fever,” the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House organized a conference in honor of two women writers. One was the realist Wang Anyi; the other was the unclassifiable Can Xue, whose first full-length novel had just been published to the same controversial reception as her earlier short work. Her oblique, nightmarish fictions had quickly gained notoriety, and once it became known that a woman was writing behind the pseudonym, criticism had turned personal. The author was said to be too individualistic, or simply too deranged, for significant achievement; her work was called neurotic and scopophilic, “the delirium of a paranoid woman.”¹ Against such charges any author might have taken a conference as an opportunity for self-defense, but it is a mark of Can Xue’s slyness that she chose to do so in the form of a fiction. Addressing her audience, she announced the happy news that in preparation for her lecture, a “male colleague” had given her guidance and even chosen her topic: she would be speaking on “Masculinity and the Golden Age of Literary Criticism.”²
The colleague, in her telling, is affronted not to be giving the lecture himself: “Those people in Shanghai are really blind. How could they invite you there? What does a woman have to say? Such questions should be answered by men. And not any kind of men, but those who have deep philosophical knowledge about things and who have also maintained their masculinity.” In his pique, he kicks apart Can Xue’s tea table—a gesture she finds “well done”—and storms out. She is left to explain his masculine philosophy, which turns out to originate from his childhood in a bandit village where “eight hundred strong men and bewitching women with bound feet” are ruled by a sexually formidable grandfather. By this point in the lecture, the audience would have recognized that they were hearing a parody of Mo Yan’s recent novel Red Sorghum, and by extension an attack on the dominant literary school of the day. All participants in the Culture Fever debates agreed that Chinese literature required a positive program, and one leading view was that it should emulate the rural mythmaking of Gabriel García Márquez, “seeking its roots” in order to “march toward the world.”³ In such an era of slogans, Can Xue’s work could not but cause distress; whatever else it was doing, it was not marching toward anything at all.
The most immediate effect of this lecture was probably to offend the establishment. But for those of us now reading her first novel in translation, twenty-five years later, it makes a good key; for Five Spice Street is among other things an author’s reflection on her newfound public position. The book was originally published as Breakthrough Performance (突围表演), a purposely self-conscious title for a debut novel. At the same time, 突围 suggests breaking free, an escape from entrapment or other immediate danger, and this raises the possibility that the escape itself constitutes the performance, that a kind of Houdini act is being staged. The plot follows a community’s reaction to an outsider, an enigmatic woman whose so-called “performances”—scholarly, sexual, perhaps supernatural—are sometimes threatening, sometimes laughable, and never well understood. Whether they constitute any kind of escape, and whether they have anything in common with Can Xue’s writing itself (which she often calls 表演, “performance”), are questions that the novel keeps in the foreground while deferring anything that looks like an answer. While it might be a fiction about writing fiction, its integrity depends on offering no positive program, nothing that could collapse into the kind of sloganeering that Can Xue mocks in her lecture. This imperative motivates its hazy narrative form, in which the protagonist is always seen obscurely and indirectly, and permits nothing—not even her bare existence—to be verified as fact.
Madam X is a stranger with a shadowy past. She has opened a snack shop on Five Spice Street (五香街), but otherwise holds back from the street’s communal life. She shuts herself indoors to pursue activities variously called “performances,” “research,” or “miracles”; whatever these practices are, they are solitary and admit no clear description. Rumors abound concerning her: that she is a former government official in disgrace, that she exerts an occult influence on the people of the street, that she is having an affair with a Mr. Q under the nose of her complaisant husband. None of this is precisely proved or disproved over the course of the book, which holds itself to a collective, external narrative compiled from the observations, conjectures, and outright fabrications of the prying neighbors. Five-spice powder is a common ingredient in the kitchen, but as narrative it makes a less harmonious mélange; every part of it is contradicted by some other.
Like Yellow Mud Street (黄泥街) in Can Xue’s earlier novella of that title, Five Spice Street is nominally part of a larger city but acts as a closed space. Apart from the initial irruption of Madam X and her family, hardly anyone arrives or leaves. The insular setting might recall the rural villages of Cultural Revolution “scar literature,” though the cruelty and famine that appear naturalistically in that genre, and obliquely in Yellow Mud Street as decay and infestation, are absent here. What persists is a paranoid social structure of spyings and denunciations, meetings in dark rooms, insinuation in every speech. “In our discussions, we used to squeeze together…we lowered our voices, making them fainter than the buzzing of mosquitos. It was as if we weren’t talking at all, just moving our lips. We could only guess what the others were saying… Only the in-group could understand the profound meaning of these movements.” The subject of these meetings is invariably X, who has been branded a social problem in need of solving, a “dissident element,” a “slut,” a “counterfeit,” a “loathsome spotted mosquito” sucking the community’s blood. Yet over the course of the book, very little direct action is taken against her. The longer the vilification goes on, the more it comes to seem the obverse of the fascination—even desire—that so many characters covertly profess for her. “On Five Spice Street we all knew: whenever someone expressed contempt for a certain thing, that thing was what he or she secretly desired.”
Yellow Mud Street is often taken as an allegory of life under the Cultural Revolution; certainly its juxtaposition of Maoist slogans with images of vermin and disease earned it heavy censorship on its first publication. Can Xue, who discourages political readings of her work, has described that novella as “not very mature,” incorporating too much of the outside world.⁴ The breakthrough (突围) that she attempted in Five Spice Street was to break free (突出) from the quagmire (or “mud-pit,” 泥潭) of language and culture.4 One way to gloss this would be to say that historical China—the squalid, dissolving landscape of Yellow Mud Street—is no longer her topic, not even allegorically. Five Spice Street places its questions of public and private identity at a more abstract level, and when snippets of historical language do intrude—whether as Cultural Revolution propaganda or Culture Fever’s utopian pronouncements—they are made to play a more general role. When the officious Dr. A says that “in considering problems, one must not look at the surface, but must pierce to the essence with blade-like eyes,” he expresses a recognizably Maoist thought.⁵ Yet it is not only Mao’s but any such overconfident method that founders on X’s basic unknowability. If she has an essence, it is not graspable in the way that Dr. A imagines. What can be known is no more than what the novel shows us, a layering of incongruous surfaces.
Apart from Dr. A, the book offers two representatives of the public world as foils to Madam X. The first is the “much-admired widow,” a matriarch who plays the same authoritarian role as the mothers in Can Xue’s short fiction. The prime mover of Five Spice Street’s public life, she takes it on herself to direct the “struggle” against the “adversary.” Much of the evidence against X comes by way of her “unique powers of observation,” which include breaking into X’s house and opening her mail, and she administers ideological corrections to those who admit a prurient fascination with X, as well as to those who consider the X affair not worth their time. Her invective contradicts itself in the usual way of propaganda against adversaries: on the one hand X is dangerous, an immediate threat to be opposed by all means available; on the other hand X is powerless, negligible, beneath consideration.
The second foil is the actual narrator of the book, who does not immediately emerge as a distinct character since his duty to the collective forbids him to use the first person singular. For the street exclusive of Madam X he writes “we”; when he means himself, he writes “the writer”; after an early scene in which he is attacked for artistic pretensions, he humbles himself to “the stenographer.” His task is to assemble the contradictory accounts of the X affair into what becomes the book’s text, a “precious historical record.” He glosses over difficulties with sheer propagandistic brio: “On our flourishing, colorful street, each resident enjoys full freedom to the best of his ability. Like a duck taking to water, everyone is relaxed and happy. Vehicles full of wonderful foodstuffs roll past…” In his telling, even the sinister nocturnal meetings acquire a nostalgic glow: “Many still sigh and say they wish time could reverse itself—if only it could stop in that moment filled with mysterious conviviality…they wouldn’t mind having their lives cut short by a decade or two.” The writer’s aim is to “draw a diagram of the maze,” “to string these diverse viewpoints together like pearls, bring them into focus, and achieve a static view, like the way the sun—before it sets—grasps the whole of the universe.” Yet he recognizes the impediments to his task; for every question the “answers were maddeningly endless. Where one person saw a wild boar, another saw a dove, and perhaps a third person saw a broom.” Before long he finds himself plaintively asking: “Is Madam X even a real person, or is she a figment of our imaginations?”
The absent center of Yellow Mud Street is one Wang Ziguang, a Godot-like figure of vague promise who was much discussed but never encountered. Madam X is a touch more substantial than this, but only a touch; from beginning to end she remains the unknown entity signaled by her name. The writer and his informants are chary of physical description, preferring to pass immediate judgment, and the profusion of direct quotations hardly provides the intended journalistic grounding since any one account of X will be immediately contradicted by some other. The book’s first public meeting takes place with the simple object of determining her age and looks. She is said to be skinny, as befits so ghostly a figure (and contrasts with the widow’s much-remarked breasts and buttocks), but beyond that nothing is agreed upon, and the disagreement soon provokes physical violence—not for the last time. The writer is left to give an ostentatiously contentless summary of X’s qualities: “skin that’s either smooth or rough, a voice that’s either melodious or wild, and a body that’s either sexy or devoid of sex.” With the same specious precision he calculates that, since her age lies somewhere between twenty-two and fifty, there must be “at least twenty-eight points of view” on the matter.
In the presence of X vision is a barrier rather than a portal. A letter intercepted by the widow recounts that “The first time Mr. Q looked at X’s face, he saw only one immense continuously flickering saffron-colored eyeball. Then he swooned and couldn’t see a thing. To the very end of the scandal, he never got a good look at Madam X. He didn’t because he couldn’t. When Madam X was in front of him, all he could see was one saffron-colored eyeball.” Even when X’s eyes do not obliterate the rest of her form, they are usually obscured in some way: lacking pupils, or else clouded by tears. Early on it is asserted that “she didn’t look at people with her eyes,” that her eyes “had retired”; though she perceives physical objects, people are obscure to her. When the public intrudes into her house, she complains that oxen are wrecking her research—“There’s always something coming in. Damn it!”—and her husband, who repeatedly serves as mediator, can only mollify her by reducing people to things. One intruder, he says, is “merely a rag drying on the clothesline”; another is a “dust rag…in the wrong place, and that bothered you. I threw it into the garbage.”
Yet with mundane blindness comes otherworldly vision. Madam X’s private activities are thick with mirrors and microscopes, trained on vistas of which the writer can catch only hints: “If you close your eyes, you’ll see the spectacle of spaceships and the Earth colliding”; “a twig poked through a red heart and a blue heart and hanging in midair”; “she concluded that she was standing on a huge, creaking sheet of thin ice.” The sexual affair with Q, if such it is, is conceived by X in purely mystical terms. Unable to see him, she employs a faculty “ten thousand times truer than seeing” to perceive a Q who has little in common with the Q seen by everyone else. In her vision he becomes a “peddler from afar,” wearing a baize overcoat, with eyes of “at least five different colors.”
The writer dismisses these descriptions as “double-talk.” Yet they are one of the few points where the novel approaches the lyric quality of Can Xue’s short fiction. In her stories, women often shut themselves inside houses; Xu Ruhua in “Old Floating Cloud” ends her adulterous affair by blocking her doors and windows and turning into a bundle of dry bamboo, while the nameless “I” of “The Things That Happened to Me in That World” secludes herself for an ecstatic encounter in an imaginary landscape of ice. The glacial scenery of X’s own visions, as well as their ambiguous sexual content, certainly follow from this, but the point of view has changed. Five Spice Street inverts the visionary short fiction by restricting itself to externals, and showing only the reaction to a visionary whose visions are unknowable. Much of the opacity in the stories derives from the characters’ inability to communicate; a barrier stands between them, and only allows them to soliloquize their obsessions at each other. In Five Spice Street, the barrier has contracted to surround X alone. Communication is possible in the public world, though it mostly consists of sloganeering and abuse; but when language encroaches on Madam X’s private sphere it finds itself silenced.
Whatever the true extent of X’s sexuality, the street’s obsession with it testifies to much repressed desire. The most obvious satirical target is the widow, who boasts of keeping herself “pure as jade” although she makes clumsy seduction attempts on both X’s husband and the writer. She vents her jealousy by calling X a “skinny monkey” without the sexuality of a “real woman,” but this does not at all diminish the street’s appetite for an adulterous affair, every detail of which they have invented. Having posited (and confirmed through “high-level telepathy”) that X and Q’s tryst took place in a granary, they spend an entire chapter on competing retellings which all turn out to be opportunities for sloganeering: one character is masculinist, one feminist, a third simply hopes to establish himself as a genius. Others are inspired to action over words. Various sex farces interrupt the main drama, often between comically mismatched parties (an old woman, a young coal worker), at one point drawing the entire street into an outdoor bacchanal, “sweating profusely and breathing hot and heavy like oxen.” To the extent that X notices this, she finds it incomprehensible. “What the hell?” she asks her husband. “Did I ever give a lecture to those guys?” She is the catalyst for every event in the book, but always at a remove; she cannot be affected as others are, for she is not a person as they are.
A different kind of book would have us reject the writer’s narrative, and the communal viewpoint he represents, as simply unreliable. Yet amid all his partiality and conjecture, the writer does display genuine insight: for one, he understands that Madam X cannot be imagined separately from the desires that the street has foisted upon her. She is “an assumption that might not be true—like a tree with massive foliage but shaky roots”; the “only true existence is the illusion, the foggy mist that aroused our enormous interest.” It is only natural, then, that the street’s tactics of surveillance, confrontation, and denunciation get no purchase on her. Only at the end of the book do they hit on an alternate plan, and instead of repressing her begin to acknowledge and even celebrate her. As a means of neutralizing her power, this turns out to be far more effective. In a political context, we would call such a move a co-optation; in a psychoanalytic context, we would call it a cure.
In a late attempt to draw his “diagram of the maze,” the writer hits on the dialectical insight that X and the street are interdependent. “Without Five Spice Street, X would not have existed…We molded her…it was because of X that our good character and our noble sentiments had the chance to be revealed.” Recast as a necessary stage in the street’s historic development, X becomes explicable through rhetoric: “A mother can’t casually abandon her child, even if that child is a rascal or a traitor.” The figure of the mother heralds the most nightmarish moments in Can Xue’s fiction, and the insidious talk of forgiveness sounds much like a dissident’s forced confession. This essentially comic novel dispenses no such grim fate to X, but from this point forward her influence is seen to wane. It becomes possible to imagine her dissolving as she appeared, fading to a symbol and finally vanishing altogether, “returned to the womb.” The first thing to go is the never-sturdy adultery plot, which abruptly resolves through the simple disappearance of both men. X’s husband is said to have left her, while Q sticks himself in the crack of a tree and dries into a insect-like husk. Neither returns; but then, as the writer acknowledges, they were never substantial characters in the first place, “mere shadows—X’s shadows, two parasitic vines.”⁶
As it turns out, the easiest way to integrate Madam X into the community is to hang a slogan on her. The chosen phrase, “the wave of the future,” is conveniently utopian; it acknowledges the fascination that X exerts (“everything she did is something we had been longing to do”) but places her at a safe remove: “what Madam X does and is today is not at all related to real life. It’s an artificial performance… To transplant her style into the context of present life would only create jokes.” The supposed honor of electing her people’s representative has no practical consequences, other than requiring her to turn two somersaults in public and have her picture taken, an imposition she had avoided as a pariah. In her last talk with the writer, she recognizes her incommensurability with the public world: “Her greatest wish was that the people would ‘forget’ her… she had come to understand that she was different from others. She wasn’t a person but only the embodiment of a desire. Because it could never be actualized, this kind of desire could only upset people.” It is a quiet irony that in confessing her lack of personhood, she comes to seem like a recognizable person for the first time.
In her disempowerment, X is driven at last to appeal to the community. When she applies for funds to keep her house from collapsing, her application is treated as an art object, universally praised, and set aside until her wall falls down. Subsequent applications are less comprehensible, “monotonous and dull, absolutely different from her earlier sexual exploits. Who had the patience to watch her doodling.” Fortunately, the “wave of the future” requires little attention for the present. “Let posterity deal with it. Our responsibility is only to provide her with space, protect her work, and leave it for future generations.”
The conclusion presents a fable on the dangers of canonization: while a counterculture may thrive on opposition, nothing is more deadly to it than indifference. Historical circumstances were not slow to bear out this lesson; within a few months of the novel’s first publication and the author’s bridge-burning Shanghai speech, the Tiananmen crackdown took place and Culture Fever came to an end. The most immediate changes may have been provoked by authoritarian pressure, but accounts of Chinese literature in the 1990s tend to agree that most of the avant-garde writers either turned to more lucrative realist fiction, or gave up writing altogether, because of their perceived irrelevance in the new mercantile order.⁷ For her part, Can Xue simply continued to write, waiting out a period of obscurity in which Chinese journals rejected her work and many of her stories made their debut in Japanese or English translation. “Lots of them hate me,” she said of Chinese critics in 2001, “or at least they just keep silent, hoping I’ll disappear. No one discusses my works, either because they disagree or don’t understand.” Five Spice Street was not reissued under its present title until 2002.

Notwithstanding the utopian language deployed at the end of this book, it is a story of diminishment and dashed expectations. Yet it concludes with a gentle, even wistful tone, as Madam X walks to the edge of the city and recalls a long-ago sexual encounter that never quite took place. If this unconsummated tryst is indeed what inspired the entire chain of rumor, then we have at last traced it back to its starting point in the imagination, a state of pure potentiality. Can Xue’s own comment on the ending is that “although everybody seems to have failed in the story, I think that in a certain sense they have made it—in their discussions about sex; in their vulgar pursuing; and in their warm imaginations about Madam X.” Warmth lies in the inner world. Having followed the many-sided tale of X’s scandal and rehabilitation, a reader able to rest in the inner world may find that warmth as well. - Paul Kerschen 

Other books by Can Xue:

"Can Xue is one of my favorite living writers, in any language, although (as well as because) I do not think I really understand her. It would seem obvious to say that Can Xue’s fiction is “dreamlike” and “surreal,” but words like these don’t get us very far. The stories contain lots of description, and are vividly poetic, and preternaturally clear, in their details. Yet these details are often highly irrational, or impossible; and they refuse to coalesce into anything like a linear narrative. There are obsessively repeated (but continually varying) images of disease and decay, of insects and other vermin, of flowers blooming and withering, of twisted family dynamics and unpleasant altercations with neighbors.
There’s something unique, too, about the tone of the stories: their everydayness. None of the narrators or characters find their “surreal” circumstances to be in the least unusual or strange. They describe a man who has suction cups on his hands, allowing him to hang from the ceiling, or a boy who raises poisonous snakes, or a woman who spends all her time in a glass cupboard, as if these were the sorts of people you met every day. They evoke metamorphoses of the landscape, so that familiar landmarks disappear, or abysses open up at their feet, as if they were merely talking about changes in the weather.
Most of these images are harsh and troubling. The stories are also filled with that dreamlike sense of never being quite able to reach a goal that nonetheless always seems to be imminent, just beyond one’s grasp. But I wouldn’t describe Can Xue’s stories as nightmarish or despairing. For they are filled with a certain wonder of metamorphosis: a sense of ongoing change that is more important than any of the goals that are never reached (for to reach them would bring the metamorphoses to an end). These stories are about loss, suffering, and mortality, but in them such events have a kind of quite beauty to them, since they are more about living on or going on, than they are about finitude and finality. There’s no finality here, and hence no narrative closure; but a kind of impersonal, insomniac vigilance that ever renews itself.
And in the end, I am not sure that anything I have just written about Can Xue’s fiction makes any sense. But what I love about this fiction is the way it continually, delicately evades whatever constructions one would want to place upon it." - Steven Shaviro