Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

February Flowers by Fan Wu

Here's a perfect companion piece for Mian Mian's "Candy" -- presenting the story of a "good girl" in contrast with Mian Mian's poor junkie --- both semi-autobiographical protagonists being born around 1970 into the kind of intellectual family ( the "stinking ninth class") that were sent to the countryside in the course of the Cultural Revolution.

But this was also the generation of single-child families -- so even Ming, Fan Wu's "good girl", is just as deeply troubled - disconnected from human relationships -- disconnected from herself.

Yes -- Ming has some problems -- and she ends up maybe even worse than Mian Mian's reformed junkie -- as she compulsively, desperately pursues her missing soul-mate (missing self? ) who may, or may not, be living in San Francisco.

But at least both Fan Wu -- and her self-based character, Chen Ming, have stayed away from drugs and booze -- i.e had a much healthier life-style -- and as a consequence the author can produce a much more coherent novel -- actually, kind of a tightly faceted gem, full of carefully constructed passages and inter-connections that reward those who re-read it.

I don't know if it's characteristic of everyone in their generation of single-child families ---- but neither Fan Wu's nor Mian Mian's protagonists find role models outside their own generation.

Dropping out of school -- Mian Mian's girl becomes obsessed -- and mis-led -- by the worthless spoiled kid musician-junkie, Saining --- but Fan Wu's girl is an over-achiever -- she stays in school -- is at the top of her class -- goes to university --and studies the greatest achievements of both Chinese and English literature. But none of her teachers play any (positive) role in her life.

Modern Euro-style university culture has failed her -- just as much as the Euro pop-youth culture has failed Mian Mian -- leaving them both as willful, mis-led, lost, and alienated children -- incapable of becoming parents themselves (just like me !)

But at least both of the authors are art obsessed -- and actually, I feel very close to Fan Wu's images of university life -- which feel very similar to my own -- even her special meditation place up on the roof of her dormitory (I also escaped to the roof -- in my case, it was the corridors of the dark and empty football stadium) She was bookish -- I was bookish -- she lived closely with less-than-intellectual roomates fresh-off-the-farm --- and so did I. She found same-sex companionship more accessible -- and was kind of alienated by the college dating game -- and so was I. She was driven to achieve success in an academic career -- and I was -- well -- no, I wasn't -- so, I suppose that's where our similarity ends. And America is such an easier place to live than the People's Republic ! You don't need residency permits to live wherever you choose -- but come to think of it -- the Chinese world was beginning to loosen up -- and Chen Ming's story is set in Guangzhou, that major city just 100 miles up the Pearl River from the extraordinary boomtown of Shenzhen -- and both Chen Ming and her soul-mate, Miao Yan, would have opportunities to live their lives outside the official channels of promotion.

And here's some other, disconnected thoughts:

The main thing I want from these Chinese novels -- or actually, any novels -- is the honest reflection of an author trying to figure things out and put a pattern on life as they've known it.

I don't want them pandering to a particular audience -- which is what anyone who wants to sell something has got to be doing. In that regard -- I have more respect for Fan Wu than any of the others -- i.e. her main character is relentlessly unappealing -- as either a good girl, a rebel, a hot sex person in the city, a Lesbian, or even a literary scholar (she just can't get into reading China's greatest novel: Dream of Red Chamber). She's a selfish little twit --- and her story refuses to go very deep into any of the other characters -- even the trashy Miao girl who becomes the focus of her attention. And yet still -- her story is so poetic.

As a outsider to the Chinese world -- it's impossible for me to know when dialog and situations are realistic -- but strange as all of it is to me -- it still feels that way -- especially the aggressive, biting dialog that characters will have with each other. I've experienced some that candid banter myself with Chinese women - I don't like it -- but that's how they are.

And what about those sex scenes ? They are certainly bizarre - but hardly salacious - as our drunken protagonist hides her head beneath covers as her "lover" consummates the masturbation that she had requested on the eve of her 18th birthday -- almost as strange as that arrangement that Mian Mian had with her mirrors. These kids are so sad !

One of the dramas involved here -- concerns the publication of the book itself -- discussed in the following interview with the author: "Your work was "rejected by several American agents for being too subtle and conservative ... Do you feel that the English speaking world has a misconception that entertainment needs to be racy and unsubtle for the public to buy it?"

To which the Fan Wu replied: "I think it’s a fact, instead of a misconception.....
I discovered [the publisher's] website by chance while trying to find an agent last summer, after I had been rejected by more than thirty agents in the US."

And a final note about Chen Ming's problems with "Dream of Red Chamber" -- i.e. she only liked the poetry, and couldn't get into the dramas of all the characters. Might this be because she didn't share Cao Xueqin's rather Buddhist involvement in the suffering of others ? I don't think she's picked up much from Asian (or European) philosophy or spiritual practice to help her through life. She's read everything --- especially 20th C. literature --- but nothing has taken hold.

And now I wonder -- where are the male voices from that generation -- the poor devils who have to live with these brilliant, self-centered, utterly confused women ? I hope that I can find some of their novels as well,

Monday, October 15, 2007

Candy by Mian Mian

A semi-autobiographical novel of a girl born into the intellectual class in 1970 - with that incredible self-centeredness of that entire generation who had no sisters or brothers -- with nothing to live for --but how they feel right NOW.

So it's a series of obsessions -- sex, drugs, broken heart, and eventually self-descriptive writing (how else would we ever get this book?)

All of it enabled by the poor, suffering parents - like her father -- who, in the very first sentence,
"pushed her in front of the Mona Lisa" and made her listen to classical music -- but all in vain.
She hated/feared the beautiful -- she had staked out her personal territory as a world of:

"The smell of air-conditioning, the smell of heroin, real and bogus, the smell of condoms, the smell of blow jobs, the smell of fast-food take-out containers, the smell of frozen fruit, the black-and-white Cantonese movies, the smell of table lamps, the smell of sweet-rice porridge, the smell of paper money, the smell of the hotel manager, the smell of vomit"

The first half of her book records her descent into this hell of ugliness/emptiness following the suicide of a classmate at her elite high school -- and the wonder of it is the juxtaposition of the two girls -- the one who is making the decent - and the one who has obviously climbed back out - and now is looking back and writing about it.

And the special wonder of it, for me, is how real, how understandable it all seems -- although its all taking place in a very different cultural tradition -- even if its boom-town setting of Shanzhen is a kind of a nether world joining Chinese and American commerce -- and the ever beckoning presence of American rock-n-roll. (the protagonist and her friends all dabble as grunge-rock musicians - and know the sad story of Kurt Cobain)

I suppose that its great virtue is that she blames no one but herself -- but she also isn't making any effort to lift herself up -- other than by entertaining her readers with this "candy" made out of her suffering and degradation.

"I have one more present for you. It's a song. It's called "all the good children will have candy to eat"

We're not good children. And I'm out of candy.
We are good children, and the candy is our stories"

The second half of the novel -- following her trips to rehab --that her ever suffering father has arranged for her -- is less compelling. (and BTW -- whatever happened to mother ? she's as absent from her story as her boyfriend's father is from his)

The narrative thread is gone -- and the story bounces around through various time and various speakers -- chaotic, confusing -- sometimes humorous - always nihilistic - as our girl is finding a place in the world --as a modern artist.

All her friends are artsy -- and there are some episodes that are memorable -- like when her sculptor boyfriend wants to engage a professional cinematographer to film them having sex in their own special way (it requires a mirror). She doesn't want to --but has no strong reason to resist -- so they go ahead and engage a gay friend to do the job -- but when they're finally all together in the hotel room, the energy for it is gone - and who really cares anyway ?

The portrait of her first lover and lifelong soulmate is interesting. He's just as self-obsessed as her -- maybe more so - and like her, his indulgent lifestyle is the gift of his intellectual parents.
Their sexual attraction burns out -- but they remain connected -- as if through mutual disgust (I think that's the only feeling they really trust)

But the portraits of her other lovers are so mishmashed together - as if seen through a drunken fog. At some point, she starts sleeping with women -- but that's no big deal for her -it's just one more way to get through the night.

I guess the question here is -- how is her world different from some of the trash-punk- rock scenes in America or elsewhere ? And how is it different from the low life spent by Golden Lotus in that Ming Dynasty erotic classic ? An underworld of sex-drugs-music seems to be a timeless opportunity -- available in any civilization -- and those of us who avoid it are sometimes entertained by those who haven't.

And finally -- the question is -- if these kids' parents knew how painful -- and expensive -- the lives of their children would become -- would they have done anything different ? We only get distant glimpses of the father's life -- but it seems to be tumultuous as well. He's quit his job for the state, and is striking out on his own as a self-employed engineer - which might be why he supports an independent life for his daughter, allowing her to drop out of school and go wherever she finds opportunity as she "finds herself". It's not made very explicit, but he also seems to have separated from his wife.

Mian's protagonist, like herself, opted out of parenthood -- but what can people do if they want a family ? It's almost as if the generation that were sent to the countryside had it better -- or even those pre-1900 generations with the terrifying Confucian father authority figure.

Some further reflections -- a week later -- after listening to Billie Holiday on the Verve recordings from the late Forties -- I guess my favorite vocalist lived in a very similar world - of despair, loneliness, self-destruction, and bi-sexuality -- but also amazing creativity. Billie's crackling voice sounds like she's 70 years old on those recordings -- and she was only in her early thirties.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Lili by Annie Wang

What I really want is a knowledgeable, contemplative, serious witness to the world of modern China - but it's so hard to tell when Annie Wang is being that -- and when she's just pandering to an American audience that wants a story about love and freedom.

On the positive side - she puts some very articulate, thoughtful speeches into the mouths of various characters (or maybe we should call these speakers "informants" rather than characters --as they represent certain points-of-view on society rather than credible portraits of flesh and blood people.

But on the negative side -- these informants are all on the same side of the fence -- they're all people who, like Lili, the narrator, have issues with the Communist regime -- so the entire story is something of a melodrama: good, powerless people versus the evil, powerful state.

Back to the positive side -- the characters of Lili's family seem real and fascinating -- and she puts them through some changes. And the time that we spend being with them -- just seems real to me.

Lili seems real, too -- her voice -- her attitude -- what catches her attention -- what doesn't. But as a severely abused, un-educated, humorless person with an attitude from Hell --
she's just not that interesting (we're told she's a good classical Chinese musician -- but we don't get to hear her play) -- while her boyfriend, the Jewish-American journalist, is completely unbelievable. (but maybe that's not such a problem: after all, I'm reading this book
to learn about China, not about Jewish Americans)

But more than any of the these characters -- the real subject of this book is the June 4 Incident, or as it's known in the West, the Tianamen Square protest and massacre. Although it only occurs in the final few chapters, it pulls together all the narrative threads, and gives me, former student protester that I am, a real sense of the confusion, the thrill, stench, and the danger of being there -- at one of the those amazing moments when a populace seems to spontaneously rise up to assert that government requires the consent of the governed.

Wang's next book, "People's Republic of Desire", shows the aftermath, ie. a populace -- or more specifically, the intellectual class -- spending its energies in pursuit of "where's mine" -- so no wonder it's less serious -- that's the theme of a comedy, not a tragedy.

I know that the real value of this book is in its details --its little moments of interaction -- as they define the life the Chinese intellectual class -- the "stinking ninth" class
as revolutionary ideology would have it -- but novice that I am -- I'm not yet sure which moments are the important ones. Lili's interrogation by the state security agents (with the fat caterpillar fingers) seems oh-so-real.

One thing that feels important is the length of the entire Tianamen protest. That central public square in the capitol city was occupied day and night by protesters for 50 days --
which I don't think would be permitted in even the democracies of the West. (how long was the "Bonus Army" of protesting WWI veterans allowed to camp out in Washington DC before soldiers were sent to evict them ? -- and they weren't even camped next to the capitol building)

Comparing this story to the one I've been writing -- the big difference is that when the dust settled after the cultural revolution, my subject had a network of well-placed family connections to help her build a life -- and Lili had nothing left but a beautiful face and a bad attitude.


But on further thought :

My visit to the Wikipedia entry on the Tianamen Square protest reminded me of that big statue of liberty that the students had built there. This enthusiasm for "liberty" is not just an American ideology -- it had been picked up by that generation of students - most of whom had probably studied English. And maybe the same thing with our American idea of "Love".

These young Chinese have been adopting things from American culture --- just as I and some of my fellow "big noses" have been borrowing things from the Chinese.

(I'm just hoping that Ms. Wang didn't also borrow another American attitude: telling people whatever they want to hear so that she can make a sale)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Emily Wu - Feather in the Storm

Emily Wu is the daughter of Ningkun Wu (author of "A Single Tear") and 15 years after that book was published, she collaborated with Larry Englemann to publish an account of her family's life in the Chinese countryside during the 1960's and 1970's.

So it makes for a different view of the same circumstances: the family of a blackballed intellectual sent out to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants.

But with the vulnerability of youth -- her story is much more emotional -- and factually, much less reliable.

So there you have both it's advantages and disadvantages.

Emily Wu can make the reader cry -- but she is not a reliable witness -- except as she embodies the effect those catastrophic years had upon her -- surrounded by so much death, deprivation, and abuse.

For example, her father's book never mentions the murder of "Old Crab" - the abusive cadre and leader of Gao Village where her family had been sent -- which would have been an event too significant for him to ignore.

But Emily and Larry turn it into a kind of feel good emotional payback --introducing a heroic war veteran as the agent of revenge -- standing up to the besodden, greedy, lecherous village bully --- as they turn the book from being chronicle into a B-movie screenplay.

And then we have to ask -- what else was put into the story for cinematic effect ? Did all of her young friends really die or end in tragedy ? Was she really reading all those novels in English when she was a teenager ? (maybe I missed it - but I don't recall reading how she was taught)

How much of what we're reading is the recollection of a life -- and how much has been contrived for our entertainment ?

I guess the part that feels the most real is the ever-recurring theme of shit. Why would anyone want to make that up ?

Shit is everywhere -- it's a kid's job to collect it -- and out-houses or sewage pits continually reappear as difficult, dangerous, and , of course, very unpleasant places. (and that's where Old Crab makes his final appearance - face down in a sewage pit, covered with flies)

And the other part that feels real is the isolation - the private world of the only girl in a family that is itself isolated as political criminals from the rest of society -- where everyone maintains their own, fragile inclusive status by shunning/abusing the outsiders.

But the final chapters in the mountains -- with the romance -- with the suicide -- with the captured tiger -- with the improbable but satisfying triumph --well -- these were very enjoyable. I saw the scenery -- I smelled the air -- I wept at the loss -- I celebrated with the triumph -- and I saw how her story paralleled the life that I've been recording on another one of my blogs.

Acceptance at university was the ticket out of China.

My friend got that ticket through hard work, intelligence, good luck --and high family connections. But Emily's family connections were all bad ones -- her education was minimal -- and it looks like it was mostly her incredible intelligence that saved the day.

The love story, in the last few chapters, also runs similar to the true love stories told by friend: the emphasis on language - and the absence of carnality. Emily and her lover were from the intellectual class - so they focused on reciting and composing classic poetry -- quite appropriate for the mountain setting where they were living. It was certainly difficult for young lovers to stay together in those years -- it was way too impractical.

I'd really like to hear about the rest of Emily's life (but without the special cinematic effects!)
What ever happened to her younger brother, Licun ? The older one got into college like Emily did -- but the younger one had such a terrible childhood, I wonder whether he recovered.