“Her performances have been enigmas to everyone so far,” says a character in Can Xue’s latest novel, Love in the New Millennium. She is talking about an opera singer, but her words sound just as apt as a descriptor for Can Xue’s experimental fiction: “Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.” One of China’s most prominent novelists, Can Xue has called her work “literature of the soul.” Hers is a solo dance in the dark, a metaphysical picture of secular life that operates on its own elusive emotional logic. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation retains much of the zany humor from the Chinese while deftly easing readers into the meanings of names and idioms.
Love has a large cast of characters and no plot. With its non sequitur dialogue, arias sounding from the sky, and houses that vanish behind characters’ backs, the book takes place in a dreamscape. It would be easy to not question these details, the way we’ve learned to accept odd formations in our bedroom after turning off the light. But the novel is designed for us to enter into these images, to interact with them and to sense how they resonate with us, like looking deeply into a painting—Dali’s playful surprises bathed in Munch’s crepuscular light.
Can Xue’s characters are her greatest riddles. Speaking in declarative, often contradictory sentences, they search for ways to break out of their mediocre routines and to live a fuller life. Some characters find meaning in their vocations. Long Sixiang, Jin Zhu, and A Si leave their factory jobs and attain greater freedom as sex workers at a spa. Mr. You is a dealer in antiques, and he acts as an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of spirits, working to keep history alive. Xiao Yuan becomes a teacher in faraway “Nest County,” where she and her students burrow into the earth to hear the rhythms of the soil, the crawl of flower roots and animals. Zhong is a keeper of imaginary honey bees; he writes about the bees in a journal and waits for their arrival. An eerily similar pattern begins to emerge from the characters’ memories and experiences, as if they are a single soul inhabiting many lives.
Feeling rootless, many characters try to return to their hometown. Xiao Yuan believes that “making a journey is the same as clinging to one place. If you settle down in your hometown, it feels instead as though you are drifting along.” After moving to Nest County, she is surprised by how at home she feels: “It was unimaginable that she had gone so long before coming here… What else had happened in her life, in its darkness?” Only, a few paragraphs later, she begins to feel homesick again.
Xiao Yuan’s husband, Wei Bo, has many affairs and cannot commit to his lovers. Wandering the city at night, he’s shoved by a stranger into an alleyway. They’re joined by a third man, who tells Wei Bo to return to his hometown. Sitting in silence, Wei Bo remembers his ancestral house, how his father would blindfold him on the way there. The house has a large courtyard, tall walls, and a gate that’s always locked. He would often get lost in its empty rooms and corridors. Eventually, Wei Bo voluntarily enters a prison that oddly resembles this house. There, he hauls sand all day—an act that could be taken either as spiritual refinement or Sisyphean punishment.
Perhaps it’s not until the end of Can Xue’s novel that I began learning how to read it. I was ushered back to the beginning, just as disoriented but opened to new possibilities, guiding the characters as much as the characters once guided me. The words of one of Xiao Yuan’s students, spoken in a flower garden, glowed with new light: “I used to think that seeds would grow into the plants they were harvested from, but it’s not that way at all.”