China vs. New Zealand [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Florian Duijsens, a senior editor at Asymptote, fiction editor at SAND Journal, and teacher at Bard College Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter at @neonres.
Today’s match pits two trophy winners against each other; in 2013, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries snagged both the Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. Can Xue’s The Last Lover and its translator Annalise Finnegan Wasmoen, meanwhile, captured the hotly contested Best Translated Book Award Cup just last month. As for your referee today, I read Catton’s book when it came out, eager to lose myself in the brick-sized book after its buzz made it all the way over to Berlin from New Zealand. Before being assigned this match-up, I’d not read Can Xue’s work, though Dylan Suher’s wonderful interview with her (sample quote, from Can Xue herself: “China has more than a few Can Xue fans, but overall, Can Xue’s era still hasn’t arrived, because her works are too ahead of the curve, and don’t conform to commonplace, habitual aesthetics.”), and the recent BTBA honor certainly made me stoked to read her “radiantly original” novel.
The singular voice Can Xue and her translator chose for The Last Lover is radically different from most fiction I encounter: the sentences are pointedly gawky, the dialogue stilted, and emotions change as quickly as chameleons lost in a book of paisley wallpaper samples. This is entirely intentional (and remarkably consistent), as I learned from Daniel Medin’s interview with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen:
Since it was important to follow [Can Xue’s] associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow [. . .] translate everything; explain nothing.
All this also means that synopsizing The Last Lover is entirely beside the point: generically named characters live in an unnamed and barely detailed Western country. They obsess over their boss, employee, wife, husband, son, or lover, each of them equally volatile in their emotional and geographical states, popping up now here, then there, now crying, then shouting. The book makes a point of all of them being on a “long march,” a somewhat allegorical reference to the Long March of the 1930s that here seems to translate to our unending journey of self-discovery and, not least, our acceptance of others’ similarly unending travails of the soul.
Joe, the novel’s quasi-protagonist, may work at a clothing manufacturing company, but he really is a professional reader at heart, constantly dipping in and out of books hidden among his papers at work and in the higgledy-piggledy library cum bedroom he keeps for himself at home. Joe’s way of reading is how I can best interpret the way Can Xue would like her books to be read. “Wrongly,” that is: Joe is constantly mixing up the stories in different books (Kafka’s stories seem particularly ripe for his plundering) or performing more radical readings by tackling them in pitch dark or by putting his ear to their covers. Books are as untrustworthy and inconstant as memory, we are told, and we should not expect them to make any more sense.
The Luminaries, to address the massive tome on the other side of the field today, is an entirely different kettle of verbs and nouns: a historical murder mystery that would not seem outré to readers of either Henry James or Wilkie Collins. Imagine TV’s Deadwood, but scripted and directed by Jane Campion and her astrologer AD. Over the course of its 800+ pages, Catton slowly reveals how a suicidal prostitute, a dead prospector, a villainous captain, and a fortune sown into a dress are all connected to, and intertwined with, the lives and fates of a varied troupe of characters in a New Zealand town during the 1860s Otago Gold Rush. Precisely plotted and charted to the movement of the stars, each chapter perches on a cliffhanger, with the reader helplessly leaping ever onward until the whole thing comes twisting back together. (I couldn’t help but wonder what the critics’ response would have been had the name on the cover been that of a man—would Catton have been showered in yet more awards, not to mention shouts of “Genius”?)
True, I was exhausted when I was done, and the book is so long and intricately structured that it includes (and practically requires) its own recap in the middle, but the language is enchanting, evocative in its conjuring of time and place, and vivid in its depiction of villains and heroes alike. Although its astronomical underpinnings largely went over my head on my first reading (each of the characters is associated with a heavenly body, coming together and apart with the orbits of the stars; the chapters slowly wane with the moon), it makes for a gripping experience that is as much about plot as it is about who killed the prospecting Crosbie Wells, perhaps more so.
Back in 2008, film critic Roger Ebert called out the critics who remained unmoved by Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, noting that having a woman move into a house that is perennially on fire is not “unrealistic” at all: “Don’t unhappy homes always seem like that? Aren’t people always trying to ignore it?” (In fact, Wikipedia tells me Tennessee Williams said something similar: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”)
I wonder if critics would have embraced Kaufman’s masterpiece more had it come from Italy or Iran, as we tend to give outsiders in world cinema (or literature, for that matter) a touch more leeway; if the names are big enough (or the country of origin exotic enough), we are more likely to waive the otherwise required elements of plot, character, and dialogue. Often this is an entirely good thing: how else to first approach the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang? Of Elfriede Jelinek or even James Joyce? Yet this can become a rusty reflex too, recommending books because they won a bunch of awards or because Susan Sontag (no stranger to enjoying difficulty for difficulty’s sake) once said she liked them, so they must be good, right?
In The Last Lover, Joe’s boss, Vincent, at some point ends up at the house of his in-laws, who can’t stop talking to their parrot:
Vincent couldn’t understand their conversation. It seemed they were debating the question of putting power lines on the stone mountains. It also seemed like they were analyzing methods of tracking down criminals on the run. No matter what the old couple said, the old parrot always said, “Very good! Very good! A work of genius! A work of genius!”
In today’s verdict, I cannot parrot the esteemed critics and friends who’ve already praised Can Xue. Reading The Last Lover was non-stop torture for me. Not a page went by that I wasn’t entirely lost at sea, that didn’t make me want to violently toss the book out of whichever room or vehicle I was in, whereas Catton’s was a wonderful slog that I now—almost two years later—fell right back into with equal measures of delight and intrigue.
Of course people flit between emotions like demented hummingbirds, faces can change quicker than a paragraph can break, and places suddenly can feel farther or closer apart. Can Xue is right: life in no way functions like the celestial clockwork of The Luminaries. Yet, to me, the best books do. However precise or pointillist their construction, my favorite books pay tribute to the intricate designs the human mind is capable of, and is capable of conveying to others through the medium of the book. I know reality is a complex muddle of emotion, politics, etc. but I hope books can somehow convince me otherwise, or—in absence of such syntactic solace—comfort me instead: with their skill, their beauty, their truth.
We all live in a house on fire, so best buy yourself a stack of the biggest, smartest books you can find and build yourself a bonfire. New Zealand for the win.
New Zealand: 4
Next up, New Zealand’s The Luminaries will face off against either Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Canada) or The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (Netherlands) on Monday, June 22nd.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rachel Crawford, and features Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent against Sweden’s The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg.