Joe heard this chatter and found the man disagreeable. He picked up his book to read again. He couldn't understand its contents, and even the characters' names had changed. The plot seemed to speak of a serving cook avenging herself on her unfaithful lover. The cook's name was also strange, Yi Zhi Mei (or Iljimae, "a plum branch"). The lover went to eat at a small restaurant. Yi Zhi Mei threw a bowl of boiling soup at him. The soup didn't touch the man; all of it splashed onto her own boy. Within a second, her skin and flesh fell to the floor and all that was left was a skeleton standing in the restaurant. The man stared fixedly at the bones in front of him...Continuing, there was an explanation of the name Yi Zhi Mei. The book said that it was "Eastern." The serving cook came from some island nation in the East, these things had happened in ancient times, the cook's status was somewhere between a prostitute and a respectable woman, and the lover was in truth a patron of brothels. That lover, after seeing the cook's accident, went completely insane. He brought the cook's bones back home, made a glass cabinet, put them inside, and locked it from outside. From then on every time the lover fooled around with a woman, his eyes saw the objects inside of the glass cabinet. The glass cabinet was set next to the bed for a long period. Joe read this and started to smile. He felt that the novel was too hyberbolic. However, he still wanted to know the whereabouts of that glass case, and imagined the look of the skeleton wearing a light, graceful summer kimono. (pp. 112-113, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen)
Can Xue is one of those rare writers whose stories I enjoy reading yet when I finish them, there is little for me to say. This is not because her stories aren't memorable, no, far from it! Instead, they possess such a combination of narrative form manipulation and wild, billowing metaphors and sublimely weird scenes that if I were to attempt a review that wasn't a full-blown literary analysis, I would be tempted to quote copiously and say, "Yes, this is wicked cool, no?" over and over again. Yet despite numerous stories appearing in publications like Conjunctions, her latest novel, The Last Lover, is only her second novel to be translated into English.
The Last Lover begins innocently enough, with a manager named Joe working for the innocuous-sounding Rose Clothing Company. But even in the very first paragraph, there are some interesting shifts that foreshadow the ride ahead:
His pale green eyes sometimes have a blank expression, either because he's absentminded or because he's eccentric. He often harbors thoughts of madness. Joe has a mania for reading, and for years he's read one book after another, muddling all the stories in his mind. His memory is of the kind that's excellent at making choices – a grafting memory – so the pathway of his thought is always clear. (p. 8)This shift from a fairly typical character description straight into questions of madness before caroming off into discussions of his reading habits and memory signals right away that this will not be a typical narrative. His wife, Maria, a talented tapestry maker, likewise possesses strange qualities, often blurting out comments that are totally out of left field. Joe and Maria comprise one of three couples whose perspectives Xue explores in The Last Lover and as she switches from one to another, the scenes become ever wilder. Of particular interest to Xue is that of country depictions by outsiders. Although she eschews having actual country/city locations, it is clear through the context just which countries are represented by "Country A" and "Country C." In passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Xue delves into the issue of story constructions and how stories transmogrify as they cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. Certainly the quasi-US that Joe and Maria inhabit is not a "realistic" portrait of this country, but by Xue flattening out certain details and expanding upon others, she has created an impressionist version of the US, one where actions and reflections cast new refractions through these warped interpretative prisms.
The narrative too takes on an impressionist, almost surrealistic quality. As these characters, Joe, Maria, and others associated with them, like Reagan and Ida, interact with their world and their thoughts, seemingly mundane things take on new contexts, such as this odd proximity between a wasp's nest and a Tibetan travel book:
When Joe entered his office he saw the wasps. An enormous wasps' nest was tied to the air conditioner, where they massed into squeezed, black piles. But these little insects didn't make any sound at all, which was unusual. Joe opened a drawer, took out a Tibetan travel book, which he hadn't seen for ages, and turned to the middle. He couldn't read a single one of the Tibetan words, nor did the book have any pictures, but over a long period of time he had turned its pages one by one. What was inside this book? He didn't know. He only knew that perhaps inside there was a world, an unfathomed place. As he fixed his eyes on the Tibetan script, a wasp dropped onto the surface of the page. The Tibetan words suddenly leapt up like flames burning the little insect. It struggled for a few minutes and then didn't move. (pp. 288-289)In other novels, a scene like this might be utilized to show a disconnect between narrator and reality. Yet Xue is not concerned with this as much as she is in exploring the ways that humans of various cultures can dream of other cultures while still seemingly awake and engaged with everyday life. As her three couples move in and out of their imaginative/real worlds and their lives warp and weave like one of Maria's tapestries into each other's lives or dream selves, the overall effect is one of sheer admiration for just how well Xue (and by extension, her translator, who has done an excellent job in making this feel as though it were originally composed in English) has created a narrative that has to be experienced before any analysis could make much sense to the reader. It seems that I did indeed quote copiously and said "this is wicked cool" after all. But yes, it is, and yes, it is the sort of work I would recommend for those who like experimental fictions that succeed because the narrative joins are so expertly hidden within interesting characters and fascinating scenes.