“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
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
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.