‘Vertical Motion’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Can Xue constructs stories that cleave entirely to their own internal logic – it’s what I imagine experiencing an alien civilisation would be like, where everything is taking place due to a prescribed set of laws that you have to learn simply through the process of being immersed. Her stories teach you to read them as you read them. That’s not to say she doesn’t have influences – parts of this story seem to have been written in the margins of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ – but her style and world-making is completely hers. ‘Vertical Motion’ might be about insects – though that is the protagonist’s own word for their civilisation, so for all I know they could be anything – who are either buried underground or in a place that we don’t have words for. Can Xue doesn’t seem particularly focused on analogy; her stories might mean something other than what they mean, but of primary importance is that the world within the story operates as a world, with its own logic buzzing away somewhere, half-glimpsed. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to translate this work, but Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping do a stunning job.

First published in English in Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011. Available to read in The White Review online, here

‘Red Leaves’ by Can Xue, Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

I kept finding myself falling into ruts with music and starting to become nostalgic so this year I’ve tried every morning to find something brand new to listen to. I’ve collected these in a long playlist for those who are interested. The process has restored not just my curiosity but a passion for music that was probably waning since I was a teenager. It’s quite a welcome surprise to still be able to be surprised. 
Reading Can Xue, I have a similar feeling. Initially, I was drawn to her because of her background; her parents were persecuted by the Communist party in China during the Cultural Revolution (a lot of my favourite writers come from societies that have suffered through conflict, division and tyranny, Han Kang for instance, and I’m interested in how those experiences resonate with and differ from the experiences of people I grew up with). It was only this year that I fully realised the extent of her brilliance (and the brilliance of other sharp imaginative writers like Lesley Nneka Arimah and Camilla Grudova). My father died of Covid-19 after a brutal six month battle with the illness on a ventilator in ICU. Spending the last few nights of his life with him, I found there was no rational way of recording what was happening given how surreal yet hyperreal it was. All logical attempts were completely inadequate. It was hallucinatory, and trying to frame it in any kind of structure, with any trite kind of lesson, would betray the depths of what he, and we, went through. Can Xue knows that there are realities below our reality, the world of health and sanity and safety, and reminds us that the ice might be thinner than we think. 

First published in translation in Vertical Motion, Open Letter Books, 2011. Available to read at Belletristrahere

‘Vertical Motion’ by Can Xue tr. Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping

“I was a little critter submerged in the desert.” The narrating critter – described in passing as an “insect”, but, to me, more of a spindly kind of mole – lives in darkness underground, among other smooth, wiggling creatures. She/he/it starts digging up towards the surface, driven by a species legend about an elder who dug upwards and disappeared. Humans on the surface are mentioned, but I don’t take this story as human allegory. Instead, I believe completely in the narrator’s “critter consciousness”. Why is it so delightful, this dark and wriggling world of creatures with beaks and atrophied fingers? I don’t know, but there’s something fantastic about the narrator whose consciousness treads the border between animal and human (“Hidden in me now was an obscure plan that even I couldn’t explain”) and who can’t help but burst up, fearfully, through layers of soil and sand toward the light.

Collected in Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011. Available to read online at The White Review here

‘A Village in the Big City’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

I’ve read that when some critics found out that Can Xue was a woman—Can Xue is pen name: a tricky term that can mean the leftover snow grimy on the roadside as well as the leftover snow that caps a mountain—they stopped trying to understand her fiction and simply pronounced her insane.

Her fiction—long or short—breezes past sense but never stops presenting recognizable scenes and characters. Talking animals may appear, but they never feel twee. This particular story is narrated by a nephew who dreams, fitfully, of larger things and a different life, but instead feels bound by family. That family exists almost entirely in a capricious uncle who lives in a housing compound called Village in the Big City. The whole story is a comedy of family whiplash enacted in tiny episodes whose terms are quickly set and discarded, recalled then violated.

There’s something about Can Xue’s particular brand of non sequitur that reminds me of a movie like Celine and Julie Go Boating… but also of a book like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Her narratives are patient and elliptical, but what she gathers in and drops at the readers’ feet looks like it just woke up and has been caught red-handed.

In Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011

‘Helen’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

This translation was first published in Conjunctions: 40, 2003

Can Xue’s fiction has much in common with Kafka’s: there’s a flat, dreamlike quality, and a sense of vast imaginative possibility, even within systems of impenetrable illogic. One of her stories begins: ‘My mother has melted into a basin of soap bubbles.’ ‘Helin’ is about a girl made to live in a glass cabinet. Expect permeable realities, impermeable truths, exuberance and humour, all washed down with illiberal quantities of exclamation marks. Not for everyone, but if Freud had read this instead of Shakespeare and Sophocles, pop culture would be adrift with mother-bubble complexes and glass cabinet syndromes, such is the archetypal heft of Can Xue’s ideas.