"There's a new world master among us, and her name is Can Xue."--Robert Coover Two young girls sneak onto the grounds of a hospital, where they find a disturbing moment of silence in a rose garden. A couple grows a plant that blooms underground, invisibly, to their long-time neighbor's consternation. A cat worries about its sleepwalking owner, who receives a mysterious visitor while he's asleep. After a ten-year absence, a young man visits his uncle, on the twenty-fourth floor of a high-rise that is floating in the air, while his ugly cousin hesitates on the stairs . .. Can Xue is a master of the dreamscape, crafting stories that inhabit the space where fantasy and reality, time and timelessness, the quotidian and the extraordinary, meet. The stories in this striking and lyrical new collection--populated by old married couples, children, cats, and nosy neighbors, the entire menagerie of the everyday--reaffirm Can Xue's reputation as one of the most innovative Chinese writers in a generation. Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning "dirty snow, leftover snow." She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include,The Embroidered Shoes,Five Spice Street, andBlue Light in the Sky, among others. Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping. Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers' University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.
A story called "An Affectionate Companion's Jottings," written from the point of view of a cat, is an adequate example. It's quite inventive and diverting to read about the cat's impressions of its depressed and occasionally suicidal owner. But Can Xue seems to think that surrealist and illogical details, which are sprinkled throughout her stories, are automatically generators of expressive sense. In this case, a "black man" visits the cat's owner, and stays some time without speaking. Aside from the unfortunate choice of a "black man" (any visitor would have done as well, and Western readers can't be expected to join in the author's simple equation of blackness with strangeness), the problem is that the visits are never explained. The rest of the story is more realistic; that detail is from another kind of writing, a mildly surrealist or magic-realist tradition. Can Xue apparently doesn't notice that the closure of the story of the cat and its owner is at odds with the openness of the unexplained visits of the "black man," and that that dissonance will appear to readers as an author's problem, not an author's gift.
I think Can Xue is at her best when she concentrates on either surrealism or realism, because she has no clear sense of how they mix. I like "Never at Peace," a story of an old man who behaves unaccountably. It is entirely in a realist vein. I also like "Vertical Motion," a crazily inventive story about a creature that lives in the soil. But the mixtures are all rum. "The Brilliant Purple China Rose" mingles a well-imagined relationship between a couple with a magical rose that blooms upside down; "The Roses at the Hospital" has more fantastical roses (this time with fetuses at their roots). The latter story seems especially carelessly composed: I see no evidence she went back and rethought anything. Each invention, it seems, was put to paper as it occurred to her. Tighter writing is what she needs.