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from the March 2008 issue

Can Xue: This New Literature has an Old Soul

A New Talent From China Posits Mind Over Matter

by Alexis Almeida

For all of you literary thrill-seekers, clamoring to uncover yet another author in whose dizzying cerebral mindplay you will delight, I give you Can Xue. Can Xue's cunning and sinister prose will send even the most intrepid readers reeling, trying to recall the precise juncture at which they completely abandoned reality. I have nothing tangible to offer by way of preparation: Can Xue's world cannot be encoded by any map or compass. But having just returned from reading "The Bane of My Existence," I do have three pieces of advice for those willing to enter the menacing and ominous world of Can Xue.

First, nothing is as it appears. If a cat suddenly seems suspiciously diabolical, assuming the domineering qualities of a manipulative and abusive lover, do not flinch–-cats are not the docile, low-maintenance creatures you once thought them to be, and they may never be again. (Take it from me, my cat now sleeps in the hall.) Secondly, leave all your preconceptions of time and space behind. Can Xue's narratives are often anachronistic and lack much specificity–-instead they take place in recesses of the human psyche and are ensnarled in the vagaries of the soul. The scenarios portrayed by Can Xue are propped up by timeless precepts–-seamlessly, she proves that the maniacal short-sightedness of the Cultural Revolution can be boiled down to the relationship between a lonely woman and her cat. Glancing at your watch or trying to get your bearings is a hopeless pursuit. Don't even try. Which leads me to my third piece of advice: feel good lost. If you read Can Xue's stories, be prepared to abandon former, tightly-held notions of reality: let surface appearances slip by the wayside and allow the human psyche free reign in a world of sinuous, unwound logic, let the absurd become normalized. I think if you follow my simple advice, you'll find her prose to be as affecting as I did even if it means reconsidering your relationship with your cat.

Can Xue's adept ventriloquism, her narration of phenomena that lie beneath the surface of life, is what she calls "soul literature," a literature extracted from the unconscious and inspired by the more eternal, albeit surreal, aspects of existence. Deviating from a more sober, male-dominated literary tradition in China, Can Xue has been beset by a barrage of criticism from within her own country, some of which resulted in the temporary censorship of her work. However, she views the source of these transient reactions as secondary to what fuels her writing: the timeless world and its recurring implications. Uninterested in the fleeting and flittering distractions of the moment, Can Xue unerringly pinpoints the eternal resonance in an ephemeral moment. Her scenarios may be otherwise considered absurd or unorthodox, abstract and surreal, but they leave me both dumbfounded and thoughtful--and they are impossible to forget.

"The Bane of My Existence" is certainly no exception. In this first English translation in Words Without Borders, Can Xue creates a searing account of a co-dependent, abusive, obsessive relationship that dominates the narrator's mind and eventually takes over her life. There's just one catch: this relationship is not between two people, it is between the narrator and her cat, whom she allowed into her house, and subsequently her mind, in a seemingly innocent act of compassion. Perhaps it is this assumption that the reader comes to question--confessions such as "It also seemed that I wanted an antagonist in my routine life" made me conclude that this self-involved, lazy narrator is getting what she deserved. Giving primacy to the unhinged and harrowing storylines that seems to characterize Can Xue's prose, this story is likely to secure a place on the eternal literary timeline by virtue of its courage and its aberrant approach to the usually impenetrable inner workings of the human mind.

Happy Trails!

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