Xue Generis: Can Xue and the Dangers of Literary Exceptionalism

By Amanda DeMarco

“Can Xue’s works are truly exceptional,” Can Xue assures us. China’s most prominent author of experimental fiction is known, among other things, for talking about herself in the third person using her pseudonym, which means “dirty snow.” Her works inhabit a space of connected disjointedness somewhere between Diane Williams and Nadirs-era Herta Müller. Think Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair politically unmoored. Hers is generally not a strangeness of voice or syntax — this is neither Woolf of The Waves, nor McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Rather its strangeness resides in the world, or at least in what the speaker notices about it. Her works are usually related in a simple style that ranges from elegantly plainspoken to abrupt. There are halting arcs of narrative, rumor, causation; clues as well as red herrings. It has all of the bones of storytelling, but often lacks the connective tissue, leaving the deductive work to the reader, along with a much harder sort of work: the struggle to accept and comprehend things that don’t make sense.

Can Xue doesn’t so much write books as she exudes a literary substance, which might vary in consistency but overall exhibits a remarkable degree of homogeneity. Though she criticizes her early works as immature because they contain too much of “the world” (read: politics), this variation is slight in comparison with the developments many authors see over the course of their careers. Her style is strong and well-developed, and her commitment to it reveals the strength of her vision. She frequently describes her creative process as a concentrated, daily session that involves little planning or editing, and it follows that this very regular process would result in a highly regular literature.

Open Letter Books has recently published her 2008 novel, Frontier. It’s her eighth book available in English, beautifully translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Her novel The Last Lover won the Best Translated Book Award last year. Frontier is less orderly in terms of narrative, but its prose shares a forthright sculptedness that is reminiscent as much of Gertrude Stein as of time-tested children’s literature. At the sentence level, it is a wonderful, carefully hewn thing, lucid and pure.

Like her earlier works Yellow Mud Street or Five-Spice Street, Frontier focuses on a place that is governed by its own internal laws of nature. Pebble Town lies at the edge of Chinese civilization (as evidenced by its Uighurs, wild animals, and mountain scenery), and is mostly full of newcomers from more populous regions. Unlike either of those two earlier works, there is much less repulsive decay and paranoia (though a little of both is to be found). Instead, the world of Pebble Town is pristine, shimmering with high-altitude radiance. It is governed by number of competing illogics, at once surreal, mythic, enchanted, haunted.

It bears saying that Can Xue does not thwart all literary conventions; hers is neither a terrain of complete abstraction nor alienation. Her characters are often likable and identifiable, for example. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the lonely janitor who has devoted his soul to the beautiful Uighur woman he once glimpsed at a market? Or Qiming, who loves to calm his neighbor’s colicky infant? Can Xue is a deeply social writer — her works are full of people, families, friendships, communication, and relationships. Everyone is constantly observing everyone else, and wondering about the community developing in Pebble Town. One character’s refrain, “What kind of people are you?” encapsulates the book’s main project: exploring the terrain of the human psyche and emotion.

Each of Frontier’s chapters focuses on a different resident or residents, about a dozen in all, revealing different facets of Pebble Town. Nancy and José are newcomers, and we learn about Pebble Town with them. They come from Smoke City (Beijing?) to work at the mysterious Design Institute, which turns out to be defunct. Their daughter Liujin is “truly one-hundred percent a child of the frontier.” The director of the Design Institute is a benevolent if imposing figure suffering from a terminal illness. She is the mortal-yet-immortal center of the town:

She hoped that her death would simply be the fading away of her physical body while in reality she would still be the director of this massive — yet false — Design Institute. Would her subordinates be able to acclimate to this new situation? She had many subordinates, and she knew each one of them. They were all linked to her gigantic brain through their individual experiences.

Frontier is crawling with animals: wolves, geckos, snow leopards, butterflies, snakes. These appear in such wild profusion that it would be impossible to assign them a symbology. Can Xue’s writing is not metaphorical in this sense. There is no organized system of correspondence or meaning within it that would allow individual elements to be explained back into the realm of the logical. Often her works are compared to performances, to dance, or to visual art.

“Can Xue’s stories are to me like modern abstract paintings,” explains New Directions Senior Editor Declan Spring, “demanding the reader’s engagement in that particular way.” Indeed, her works are extremely demanding of the reader. I read seven books by Can Xue for the purpose of this review, all of them with diligence and care — an act of will as punishing as it was rewarding. One enters a world of shifting rules that can be followed only with dogged diligence and unflagging attention, a rarefied spiritual environment of sliding matrices and unknown constellations, which trace themselves somewhere behind the eyes. A realm from which one is speedily ejected, at the slightest wavering of concentration.

However, it was also a familiar realm, one that I’ve loved and schooled myself in for my entire adult reading life. The world-tradition of “experimental” writing seeks to chart the human intellect and soul using the tools of literature, which extend beyond the capacities of language as logic. Anxious to enthrone her as a genius — many foreign writers have not survived the transplant, so their anxiety is understandable — Can Xue’s promoters have often unintentionally denied her her birthright in this community.

Critics focusing on Can Xue are often scholars or translators of Chinese literature; they assure us that she is “peerless” as a writer of experimental literature in China, and a female one at that. If they are familiar with the legions of experimental fiction writers who actually are her peers, they’re silent on the subject, and so discussions of her literature take on a hushed tone of admiration for a virtuoso non pareil. (Can Xue has promoted this perception by making strong claims about the sui generis nature of her writing.) It is certainly helpful to introduce a foreign writer by filling the audience in on what they do not know about the source culture, but it is also helpful to tell them what they do know: which tools, strategies, and associations can be drawn from their own culture’s experience with experimental literature. That’s how to read Can Xue’s writing in a way that is informed but also rich.

One of the best reasons to contextualize Can Xue in an international experimental milieu is her frequent emphasis on the influence of Western thought on her work — she tends to invoke (and has written books about) Great Male Westerners: Dante, Kafka, Borges. Oddly, her identification with modernism rather than post-modernism has often been taken as a mark of distinction, though anyone with an even fleeting acquaintance with English-language experimental writing of the past half-century knows its reverence for modernism is endemic. In other words, reading her alongside Western writers is merely placing her in the second of the two traditions from which she arose. This is what makes it an act of justice rather than an act of violence.

The brief list of comparisons at the beginning of this essay are just a starting point. The American literary magazine Conjunctions has published many translations of Can Xue’s works, which fit seamlessly with the aesthetic of the magazine, providing a constellation of (often female) peers and points of reference for her work. I do not know enough about Can Xue’s reading habits to infer whether their characteristics evolved by influence or analogously — that is, whether she is reading her peers or whether she and her peers are merely reading the same people. The question, though interesting, is not essential.

When such cross-cultural comparisons do happen, they tend to be tentative or misguided. Can Xue-meets-Kafka is a popular topic for master’s theses, but this is a very safe comparison because it is suggested and elaborated by the author herself, and Kafka is hardly her peer. One thesis comparing Can Xue and Hélène Cixous points in a promising direction and then is more or less asphyxiated by its own academic posture. When Can Xue first appeared in English, some critics curiously likened her to Márquez, which I can only attribute to his cultural super-saturation at the time — they saw the world through Márquez-colored glasses.

A lonely, hopeful review of Frontier by Amal El-Mohtar dares to reach out in more associative directions, linking Can Xue with Ishiguro, Woolf, C.S. Lewis, and William Golding. Her references are more traditional than those I would choose, but they do provide the sort of intellectual-emotional star chart by which we can begin to navigate what is actually going on in works like Frontier.

Unmoored from such literary bearings, and confronted with the idiosyncrasies of Can Xue’s style, many critics plunge into an experimental-literature-induced zero-sum free-fall, overstating the radical nature of her work to the point of completely bulldozing its characteristics. A recent review claims that “her narratives have no memory … she invests little or nothing at all in the unity of time and place.” But Frontier is nothing if not for its setting, and the trajectories of the people in it. José and Nancy come from Smoke Town, learn about Pebble Town, have a baby, Nancy leaves José … you know, a story, albeit a bit of a disjointed one. Not only does the story have memory in the sense that an arc from one event to the next is completed, but individual characters literally have memories — José and Nancy remember Smoke Town. Consciousness of a fuller palette of experimental styles would make the deficiency of such absolutizing evident.

In a related vein, one of her publishers advises:

So what to say to those readers who find Can Xue difficult to read? What is difficult, I think, is overcoming one’s own resistance, overcoming one’s comfort zone for immersive narration, overcoming one’s training as a “literary reader”; overcoming one’s expectations for the way a story is told; overcoming one’s appetite for predigested description, overcoming one’s blindness to the subterranean and subconscious forces that actually give contours to the visible terrain we acknowledge to be reality.

This would have been valuable advice for Balzac, had he been cryogenically frozen in 1850, then awoken today and handed a copy of Frontier, but it’s a rather patronizing admonishment to a modern reader, at least to anyone who could conceivably be interested in Can Xue. I think Can Xue is difficult; my training as a “literary reader” is what helps me to understand her. But I guess it’s just experimental Groundhog Day as usual. Mistaking avant-garde writing for progression rather than tradition is an error as old as avant-garde writing itself.

Can Xue’s reception is further complicated by the fact that she maintains an enfant-terrible-type public persona. This involves praising Can Xue’s writing, comparing Can Xue to Dante or Kafka, and declaring other writers to be the intellectual inferiors of Can Xue. All of this is undeniably entertaining. I suspect it is the result of occupying an embattled position in a traditional, male-dominated milieu, and that facets of it cannot be parsed correctly by a non-Chinese audience, but it also contributes to the “maverick” vibe that hinders contextualization of her work. Particularly given the opaque and demanding nature of her writing, I could only consider it a distraction.

I write these words well-aware that being a woman in the public sphere is a losing game, and that critics and audiences often pay undue attention to the figure of the female writer rather than to her work, a focus which is often harsh, prurient, demeaning, or some mixture of the three. I wrestled with my reactions, and I considered simply not reading any more of the interviews, but this seemed blinkered, particularly since these interviews are numerous, consistent in tone, and generally comment directly on her work. One might argue that the persona “Can Xue” is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a performance which includes experimental writing, but also interviews and essays. If this is the case, I find the Gesamtkunstwerk less compelling than just the Kunst. But I love the Kunst.

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