A likable loser tries to keep his head above the torrent of contemporary Beijing.
The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei—translated beautifully from the Chinese, albeit with a certain appealing clunkiness, by Canaan Morse—is the first of his novels to be translated into English. It tells the story of two Beijings: The grimy, hardscrabble Beijing, inhabited by gangsters and hustlers; and the shiny, modern Beijing, home to professors and international businessmen. These twin cities, both equally real and equally fantastic, exist side by side, and Fei’s narrator, Mr. Cui, takes the reader back and forth between the two. We meet Cui, a middle-aged “audiologist” who builds and repairs stereos, standing in front of a hulking apartment complex waiting to deliver a new sound system to a client in a scene reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. Cui is the ultimate outsider, a poor man who resents and looks down upon his rich clients, their beautiful wives, their class presumptions, and their tastes in terrible pop music. And yet, Cui is no Philip Marlowe tough guy, but a scrounger, barely hanging on to his livelihood. He idealizes beautiful music, beautiful machinery, and beautiful women, but he can’t hang on to any of them himself—his own wife, Yufen, left him years ago—and his resulting anxieties are legion:
The security door for Unit 3 popped open. A woman in a gray athletic shirt leaned out from the doorway. She peered at me and at the mud-flecked minivan behind me, then finally caught sight of the KT88 [amplifier] at my feet. She smiled and gushed, “Oooh, it’s so pretty!” I wasn’t sure if she was being polite with her praise or slightly patronizing. The way she spoke reminded me of Yufen. Her face and form did too. I couldn’t help but look her up and down a few times, as faint ripples of panic and sorrow crossed my heart. The KT88 amplifier I had worked so hard to build sat on the concrete stoop, its silver, velvety body shining in the morning sun.”
Such ironies—Cui is skilled enough to win a beautiful wife and make a beautiful machine, but not rich enough to hold on to either—are a refrain throughout the novel. Beijing’s rich can wear American shirts and drink top-shelf liquor. They can pay top dollar for beautiful sound systems. And yet they don’t value what they have. They use their stereos to play third-rate pop CDs. They drink too much and throw up in the bushes. Meanwhile, Cui and others in his class live hand-to-mouth while what is beautiful in their lives slips inexorably through their fingers. People die, friends drift apart, siblings become bitter enemies. Years earlier, when Cui was about to marry Yufen, his mother warned him that she was too beautiful for him to hold on to. Sure enough, she left him for another, richer man.
Cui tries to say that times used to be better. He gets a little nostalgic about the 1990s, when Western classical music was playing on all the radio stations and lots of people were buying expensive stereo systems. And yet The Invisibility Cloak ultimately presents the world as unchanging. The narrative flows easily from the present to the past, moving smoothly back and forth from Cui’s childhood to his present, middle age. The novel is set in today’s Beijing, but the earthquake season of 1976 continues to impact Cui and his friends and family. Time seems almost irrelevant. In the same way, dreams flow into reality. The dead appear in visions, and it almost doesn’t matter whether the visions are real as they are folded easily into the characters’ messy, complicated reality regardless.
Cui’s sister, pushing him to remarry, introduces him to one of her coworkers, a good-hearted but plain and downtrodden mother of a sullen teenager. While Cui is briefly tempted, his dismay over her plainness, her speech impediment, and her dirty, cramped apartment torment him, even while he admits to himself both her decency and his need for a place to live.
I chatted with Meizhu until late in the evening. To be honest, I felt extremely well-disposed toward the woman. Lisp or no lisp, she was a compassionate, honest person, no doubt. In a world like ours, individuals like her are scarce and becoming harder and harder to find. That her situation was so much more desperate than mine triggered a sort of impulse within me—the naïve impulse to care for her for the rest of her life. Yet this idea only flickered once, then disappeared. As I cast an eye over the cluttered, airless apartment, I realized with some distress that even if I did marry her, where the hell would I put all my sound equipment?”
Eventually, and despite his lack of money, Cui decides to buy a small house just outside of Beijing. A childhood friend introduces him to a gangster who commissions him to build the best sound system in the world. The gangster is icily terrifying, but Cui admires him far more than his usual clients. Unlike them, the gangster is both unpretentious and intelligent, and he listens intently to the music Cui plays him. What remains of Cui’s introduction into this shadowy world this reviewer will leave up to the reader to discover. Despite its short length, Fei constructs for the reader a deep dive, and the book begs the reader to plunge in and surrender to it. I recommend you do so.