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from the June 2009 issue

Can Xue’s “Five Spice Street”

Reviewed by Brendan Hughes

Who is Madam X? Madam X sells peanuts at the stand with the red-painted sign. Madam X is an occultist, a collector of mirrors and corrupter of neighborhood children. Madam X is a home wrecker. Madam X is a threat to communal harmony and morality. Madam X is a sexual deviant. Madam X is a virgin. Madam X is fifty years old. Madam X is twenty-two. Madam X is having an affair with Mr. Q. Madam X wishes to be famous. Madam X hopes to be forgotten. Madam X is the elected representative of the people of Five Spice Street. Madam X is the wave of the future.

The question of Madam X's identity is at the center of Can Xue's Five Spice Street, a novel that is by turns confounding, comic, and sharp in its portrayal of communal life on a small street in an unnamed country (but which bears an unmistakable resemblance to China). It is a question that is not so much answered as it is endlessly speculated upon by the street's residents, who observe Madam X's activities (Madam X doesn't say much, so they must watch her vigilantly) and then provide their own explanations. As a result, Madam X at first becomes a repository for the people's biases and prejudices. She is thought to be having an affair with a certain Mr. Q, and despite the fact that other residents engage in similarly shady sexual behavior, Madam X is shunned as a degenerate. But by the novel's end, after the people of Five Spice Street have exhausted their speculations, Madam X is honored as a visionary who "represents a society of the future," and she is elected representative of the street.

A tidy plot summary does not begin to capture the novel's tangled versions of reality. The reader sinks into a cacophony of street voices and their competing narratives like a castaway falling into quicksand. An unnamed writer narrates the story, and he reports diligently on the "facts" of the case, trying to reconcile each variation he hears from the residents of Five Spice Street. The first lines are a clue to what follows: "When it comes to Madam X's age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person's guess is as good as another's. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she's about fifty (for now, let's fix it at fifty); at the other, she's twenty-two." Consider yourself warned: it only gets foggier from there.

The spark that sets off this fuse of speculation about Madam X is her alleged affair with Mr. Q. A widow notices Mr. Q's comings-and-goings and soon the whole neighborhood is talking about it. Both have spouses who are "childlike," devoted, and don't seem to care much at all about the rumored affair. Madam X says that she "never laid eyes" on Mr. Q, and one of the neighbors, "a female colleague" of X, explains that "X didn't look at people with her eyes…After she bought the mirrors and microscope from the junk shop, she even announced that her eyes 'had retired.' That is, except for things in the mirror, she looked at nothing." Euphemisms, such as "spare time recreation" used in place of "sex," are deployed by all residents of Five Spice Street. Everyday conversations are beset with the uneasiness of Orwellian doublespeak.

Mirrors and microscopes, spare time recreation, a main character who can only see reflections in a mirror, and a plot that is riddled with random events and characters who flit in and out of the novel seemingly without purpose (a partial list of such events and characters: the collapse of Madam X's house, Mr. Q's discovery of a bouncing ball, Old Woman Jin's affair with a young mining worker, Old Meng's affairs with various women, a widow's neighbor shitting on her front steps, a lame woman recounting a twenty-three-minute staring contest)—this is dangerous territory. Five Spice Street is a novel about the meanings and sources of identity, about the relationship between the individual and the community, about the gap between public and private selves; it is a critique of narrative storytelling, of relationships of cause and effect, of the idea that anything that springs from the human mind can be called truth. It is a novel that rejects the senses, building its fictional universe by subtracting them. What little the reader can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste on Five Spice Street is ultimately uncertain, ephemeral, subjective. The reader, on this arduous journey with an author who isn't explaining or taking questions, is bewildered.

All of this makes Five Spice Street a challenging, frustrating read, but, as with quicksand, it helps if you don't struggle. The rampant gossip, the maligning of character, the elaborate explanations for mysterious behavior, all bring to mind pre-capitalist-reform China, when even the most innocuous behavior could be taken as subversion and lead to public denunciation by friends, neighbors, or colleagues, followed by a trip to a "reeducation" camp. Although the book is set in an unknown city in an unknown year, it is easy to imagine Madam X's neighbors reporting her to the police or some party apparatus that deals with dissenters and social misfits. But instead of a reeducation camp, Xue devises a hilariously backwards ending. After years of denouncing her, the people of Five Spice Street decide that Madam X is really "ahead of her time," and they elect her the people's representative, a job she does not want. By now her husband has left her and her house is literally falling down, but when she appeals to the government committee in charge of house renovation and construction to have her crumbling house fixed, her applications are taken as a kind of statement on the political system and ignored. Two weeks later the house collapses. The temptation for the reader is to interpret the collapse as symbolic of something—its occurrence is so random, so unaccounted for, it would be hard not to—but it isn't symbolic, it's meaningless. The collapse is the culmination of the trick that Five Spice Street has been playing on the reader all along: on Five Spice Street, nothing means anything.

Brendan Patrick Hughes was born in Boston. His writing has appeared in Next American City, The Believer, and on his website, He lives in the Borough of Queens in the City of New York.

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