The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.
Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.
In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:
The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.
As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:
When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”
Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:
“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”
Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?
This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.