Over the last thirty years Can Xue has created an astonishing body of avant-garde literature exploring the limits of the individual. The vision of her idiosyncratic writing — which she calls ‘soul literature’ — positions her as a major global champion for the experimental, though her reputation in the Anglosphere has not yet reached the heights it deserves; so far, five different translators and five publishers have worked to bring her imaginative, difficult and abstract fiction into the English language. Continuing a sequence that began with FIVE SPICE STREET and THE LAST LOVER (which won the Best Translated Book Award in 2015), her most recent novel, LOVE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM (recently longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize), is a metaphysical inquiry into the networks of flawed communities. Through the stereoscopic tales of a group of women searching for enlightenment in an uncanny world of espionage and secrets, Can Xue stretches the dimensions of the novel, conjuring an irresistible fiction that is — like the reality in which one character finds himself — ‘an enormous enigma within an enigma.’
In her foreword, the poet Eileen Myles describes the gleaming world evoked in the novel as intrinsically female and connected, one which radically centres the experiences and histories of resilient, dangerous and insatiable women. The novel plays out episodically, each chapter further untangling the crowded brocade of relationships surrounding a bordello in Western China. Nothing is as it first appears: in Can Xue’s non-conformist characters, and her disregard for traditional narrative conventions, the reader is thrown into a surreal, transitional realm:
The world is in chaos! The world is in chaos! Women are vanishing off the face of the earth! When you go outside at night all you can see are black crows!
The novel is populated by sex-positive and sex-work positive women, women who look like wolves or scream like cicadas, whose bodies ‘flickered with snow-white flashes of electricity’; women who feel so lonely that ‘they burn grass on the wilderness as a way to communicate.’ Can Xue’s case-studies are forsaken casualties of capitalism and patriarchy, now plotting to establish a position for themselves in a modern world saturated with clandestine rituals and operatic violence. The novel’s title is a red herring: her characters are just as curious about friendships and familial bonds as they are concerned with flirtations, infatuations and sex. Their absurd stories absolve the women of narrative consequence, freeing their destructive rages and passions; the characters are always in a feverish state of transfiguring their appearances or the world around them. A Si purposefully cuts her head on a machine in the cotton-mill, with the wound later mutating into a vaginal-like abyss of her trauma manifested; Long Sixiang, whose name means ‘homesickness’, is haunted by the death of her son and begins to work in the city’s brothel, only to dream that she stabs a customer who turns out to be herself; Xiao Yuan, a woman who can control radios with her thoughts, runs away to Nest County in the Gobi Desert on a quest for magical herbs.
The characters in LOVE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM experience an overriding friction between their urban lives in the cities — where they have migrated in order to secure an economic future — and the legacies left behind in the rural hometowns of their ancestors. The women move between two primary areas of industrial production— the failing cotton-mill and the flourishing brothel — as they negotiate sexual desire, their desire for property, and the fetishes of the capitalist market. The future in which they are invested feels unobtainable within the spiritual emptiness of the city, its false families and shallow communities. Eventually, characters end up disappearing without warning, or impulsively travel towards the mountains, or are forced to burrow underground. Long Sixiang, for example, discovers a mysterious village of muddy caves underneath her lover’s home and contemplates moving into them in order to escape:
Long Sixiang stayed in bed for a long, long time, listening to the sounds coming from the hot springs. There seemed to be many men and women playing in the water, their voices mixed together, often with an exaggerated scream. It was a scene of false animation.
The novel is imbued with a certain kind of exhaustive dream logic: people are always losing consciousness or memories, caught between sleeping and waking, intruded upon by the narratives of ghosts, spirits and the living dead. The clamour of voices — manifold whispers, contradictions, gossip, interruptions, conversations, riddles and conspiracies — makes it easy to miss the novel’s quieter moments of satire and poetry. But Can Xue’s dreamscapes are rich and compelling: it would be easy to compare her to Schulz, Calvino or Borges, except that her mythical worlds occupy a space that reads like it is being discovered for the first time. Science, time and geography become distorted and malleable: the novel is interested only in its own incongruous dimensions. The nameless Chinese city feels both contemporary and somehow primordial; buildings are always on the cusp of demolition, and many of the city structures literally collapse after it is revealed that they were constructed using fraudulent cement. The narrative fabric is cannibalistic: just as one character travels towards a newly fixated refuge, so will a previous sanctuary disappear and cease to exist.
Can Xue’s prose — in Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s vivid translation — eschews the stylised clichés of Postmodern experimental fiction, creating a terse and lucid aesthetic that is both symbolic and incisive, oblique and witty. With strange repetitions, uncanny syntax and aloof pacing, her sentences build themselves up only to be torn down. The novel’s hypnotic layering of language draws comparisons to Gertrude Stein’s longer prose; like Stein, Can Xue is working through relationships of objects and people in order to draw attention to the reading experience. Western influences, via Gaskell, Flaubert and Verdi, interact with an unmistakably Chinese philosophy of the soul: these references bring the novel’s various stories together thematically, even if many of its paradoxes are left unresolved. A Si eventually returns to the abandoned cotton-mill, only to find it overrun with poisonous bats. An elderly receptionist makes it his mission to record the history of the mill and its generation of ‘lovebirds’, asking ‘Wasn’t history an event that repeated unforgettably in the mind?’ In the end, the historian’s violent fate is typical of Can Xue: a transient moment of satisfaction — ‘to reverse the verdict of history’ — is destroyed by masked bureaucrats and thugs. All that is left behind are the pages of chit-chat, random movements and potentials, bodies without organs, transient vessels emptied out.
Echoes of these former lives and parallel stories hint at repetitive patterns buried deep in the text, creating an impression that one is reading a collective dream, that the characters are all reincarnated versions of one singular unified figure and their inner emotional world. In interviews, Can Xue has argued that all her books are autobiographical. Her earlier short stories and novellas dealt more explicitly with the misty spectre of Chinese history, drawing on her family’s persecution and subsequent exile to the labour reform camps in the rural outskirts of Changsha during the 1957 Anti-Rightest Campaign. Unable to return to education, Can Xue (whose art-name means ‘spoiled snow’ in Chinese) immersed herself in classical Western literature and philosophy. In 1988 the publication of her first novel, FIVE SPICE STREET, heralded a writer whose pursuit for a different form of Chinese literature stirred controversy in literary circles; critics, threatened by her position as a writer who was both subversive and a woman, called her ‘hysterical’. Can Xue is often categorised with a short-lived generation of Chinese avant-garde writers of the 1980s, including Ge Fei, Ma Yuan, Yu Hua and Su Tong, but her writing has continued to evolve, testing the radical possibilities of fiction as she explores the individual’s separation from society; she is a writer who unwaveringly chooses to prioritise art and philosophy above all else. Her internalised writing move beyond easily defined categories of post-revolutionary writing or Chinese feminist literature: one feels Can Xue may soon abandon characters, settings and even words altogether. The writer Porochista Khakpour has described her as a ‘true iconoclast, the uncompromising original’. With every novel it is clear that Can Xue is more determined than ever to bring to the surface the experimental and cryptic secrets of the soul. Perhaps it is through her fixation in the shared self that the reader can finally understand the vicious circular meaning in her worlds:
I was tired of living, and couldn’t decide whether to change. It made me anxious to the point of madness. I rushed around everywhere, until I rushed in here. Now it looks like my rampage came to the right place, don’t you think?