Frontier, the latest novel by the experimental Chinese writer Can Xue, in a straightforward and accessible translation by Keren Gernant and Chen Zeping, describes life in a border town. But what, exactly, does Pebble Town border? It’s far in the north of China, and literalists will at first conclude that Pebble Town is near the border with Outer Mongolia, but keep reading. There is such a constant thrum of magic in Pebble Town that, in fact, it seems to be set on the border with reality itself. Newcomers to Pebble Town struggle mightily to adjust to the town’s magic. The earth shakes and punches them when they sit down. A southern garden appears and disappears; walking out to find it, they are lost in a wasteland. The townspeople are subject to constant hallucinations. They see wolves in the marketplace and panic. They mistake snow leopards for sheep.
The story––to the extent that there is a story––is broken into long chapters, each from the perspective of a different character. There are some dozen characters. Among them, there are Nancy and Jose, a young couple from faraway Smoke City, who come to Pebble Town to work in the Design Institute. There’s Qiming, a middle aged janitor originally from Fish Village, who is fruitlessly in love with a Uighur beauty from the nearby mountain. There is Liujin, Nancy and Jose’s daughter and the only person born in Pebble Village––a true child of the frontier. And there is the director of the Design Institute, a nameless and fantastical personage who has risen from the dead to oversee the lives of Pebble Town’s people.
Some readers will be frustrated by Frontier’s lack of shape. The novel is jittery and the action is constantly stopping and starting. Characters set out to visit each other, only to find themselves in an unknown wilderness, whereupon they simply turn around and go back home. The director is at one moment a farmer, and in the next moment a piece of white cloth flapping in the wind. Much of the novel is a sort of montage, a series of brief, dreamlike scenes cobbled together.
Take Liujin’s visit to the mysterious Design Institute, late in the novel. She goes to the office where a family friend, an African named Ying, works. The room is dark. There is a string of skulls hanging from the ceiling making a racket. Ying tells her that they are the skulls of men who lost their lives to a malaria epidemic. Abruptly, Ying and Liujin go outside to visit a magical rock. They go inside and visit another office, where an evil wind sickens Liujin. Then back to the rock again, where they watch a man wrestle with a snake. Liujin gets on a bus and goes home.
Most of the scenes in Frontier work this way. There is no outcome. Nothing ever really happens, because the environment is constantly fading and transforming before people can impact it. There is not a lot of interaction in the novel. The lines between thought and speech are blurred, and there is no action to mediate between the two. So characters observe each other and speculate about each other’s inner life, but rarely seem to connect.
Liujin has a sort of suitor, an enigmatic man named Sherman. He visits her building’s courtyard and opens up a basket of croaking frogs. He comes to her stall in the market and fingers the cloth she’s selling. The two of them sit and drink tea together, but they never actually talk to each other, or touch each other. All is silence and possibility. The relationship never goes anywhere.
The town itself seems to tear apart connections between people. Nancy and Jose, the young people from Smoke City, are a close-knit couple before they arrive in Pebble Town. But after just a few days in the frontier town, they become strangers to one another, even as they remain strangers to the locals. Nancy quickly adapts to the rules of life in Pebble Town. She feels comfortable with the shifting landscapes and the taciturn people, while Jose is still confused. Here they are having lunch in the Design Institute’s canteen:
Nancy had bought her food and was sitting at a round table waiting for him. When he carried his food over there, he noticed that no others were sitting at this table, yet the other tables were crowded. ‘I think things are very well organized here,’ Nancy said quietly as she ate. She was satisfied. Jose thought, he and Nancy were becoming more and more distant from one another. Still no one had joined them by the time they finished eating. Everyone else was crushed together, and many people even stood as they ate. The director and the two of them were isolated in this canteen.
But just as Pebble Town separates people, it can bring them together. Soon after their arrival in Pebble Town, Nancy has a baby, Liujin. Liujin is an enchanting, precocious baby. She has a mesmerizing gaze. She is also very, very colicky. Nancy can’t bear the baby’s endless crying and flees to the Design Institute, where she buries herself in work, leaving Jose to raise the baby. Jose develops a strong bond with his daughter. Significantly, they bond over the stories that Jose tells Liujin, and their bond transforms the stories themselves.
The baby’s days began filling with happiness. Whenever Jose bent down to pick her up and tell stories, she kicked her little feet happily in the cradle. And so father and daughter, faces touching, kept on talking. The baby was still babbling broken syllables, but with time they became more and more focused and enchanting. These snatches of syllables stimulated Jose’s thinking. Bit by bit, he felt he no longer controlled his own narration: more and more blanks appeared in his stories. He loved this new narrative style: these stories filled with blank spaces were both simple and a little hard to explain.
Jose’s narrative style might just as well be Can Xue’s. This novel’s stories, filled with blank spaces, are both simple and a little hard to explain. Maddening and endlessly demanding, Frontier is at its best when we read slowly and with great patience, when we listen to it the way we might listen to a maddening, endlessly demanding but lovable child.