After an American road-trip in the company of a fascinating (if slightly disturbed) woman, it’s time to move on with the second Asian leg of this year’s Man Booker International Prize journey. While there have already been several confusing cultural confrontations on our travels, nothing compares to what you’re about to encounter as we take a trip to a town where reality appears to be an unknown concept. Let’s hit the streets (and the farms, and the caves) to meet some happy people with perpetual smiles on their faces – it must all be down to love…
Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue
– Yale University Press, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Australian distributor Footprint Books)
What’s it all about?
In an unnamed town somewhere (presumably) in China, factory worker Niu Cuilan goes about her days, enjoying time at a hot spa (which doubles as the town’s brothel) and occasionally meeting up with her lover, Wei Bo. He has a happy, if mostly separate, marriage with Xiao Yuan, a woman with many quirks and a job that requires her to travel, allowing her to meet Dr. Liu, an expert in traditional Chinese medicine. Meanwhile, Wei Bo’s former lover A Si, a beautiful prostitute, moves between her flat in a strange building and the sewers where her new lover, a drug smuggler, drags her along on a mysterious mission. Oh, and did I mention that Wei Bo has been sentenced to a short stint in prison?
Yes, we’re back in the strange world of Can Xue, and these cryptic descriptions will be very familiar to anyone who tried her IFFP-longlisted work, The Last Lover. Love in the New Millennium runs along very similar lines, with the same circular ramblings, coincidental meetings and an overall sense of everything happening on a slightly different plane. This isn’t the world we know, yet it’s not quite fantasy either, with a sense that there is a logic, and even a storyline, somewhere here, if only we can uncover it.
However, that’s more easily said than done. One of the problems of reading (and reviewing!) this book lies in nailing down a focus, a plot. It consists of eleven chapters, each starting with a character, but there’s no guarantee that they will be the focus of the section. As the book progresses, people reappear, now seen through the eyes of other characters. Social connections are built, romantic ties develop, and everything appears to be interconnected, with the writer making sure everyone gets along nicely. In the modern age, where most people no longer need to struggle for their existence, attention has turned to how to make the most of our days, a more metaphysical struggle.
Yet Love in the New Millennium is still a very difficult book to get a grasp of. It’s pervaded by a dreamlike air, where everything seems to make sense without actually needing to. Strangers are suddenly revealed as old acquaintances, unknown roads lead to familiar parts of town, and characters waltz in and out of houses with no appointments, resulting in coincidental meetings that surprise no-one:
Cuilan concentrated, listening carefully, trying to distinguish Wei Bo’s voice, but could not. Her suffering as she stood there was like a torrent through her heart. Someone in the dark spoke to her, in a voice that was strangely familiar.
“This kind of thing happens every day. Don’t take it to heart.”
It turned out to be Long Sixiang. She was sitting in the two-wheeled cart Cuilan had ridden before.
p.31 (Yale University Press, 2018)
This happens all the time, and while there’s a certain elegance to this quirk, it does begin to grate after a while.
So, if there’s little plot, what *can* be said about the book? Well, apart from the focus on love, and the many romantic ties that form over the course of the novel, there are a few themes that stand out. One is a focus on women, with the female characters on the whole the most prominent. We meet several cotton-mill workers, who are only able to move on, and upwards in life, by becoming prostitutes. Niu Cuilan and Xiao Yuan both love Wei Bo in their own way, but prefer loose ties and freedom to a conventional life with a partner. This is a town where women are strong and make decisions, and the men (for the most part) are happy to accept them as they are.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is the way it looks at past and present. There are many parallels between the town and the countryside, and several characters visit their traditional hometowns, mourning a loss of their tradition. However, as it turns out, it’s still there, beneath the surface of modernity, in the form of old caves, which some people return to live in, and the ancient city walls, invisible, but ever-present. These shifting, hidden features of the town also include the free port, a gambling den that moves location, and the sewers that serve as a shadow transportation system. By night, the city takes on a new aspect, and the reader is forced to reorient themselves once more.
Every time you think you’re getting the hang of things, though, Can moves off in a different direction, with new characters, and you’re lost again. The bizarre nature of the work is the point, and the reader must simply wait patiently and avoid over-analysing what is supposed to be merely accepted. This dreamlike, artificial air is further enhanced by the language used, frequently simple and stilted:
“No, I’m not an expert. I work at a gauge and meter factory.” Cuilan’s mind strained as she spoke. That incandescent bulb irritated her. “I think you’re a pessimist. You should go outside to play. You’re very handsome, all the girls like you. There won’t be rivers that you cannot cross. You’re not like me, I’m such a mess. Recently I feel like I’m heading towards a dead end.”
“See, we can share our sorrows with each other here. What’s the weather like outside?”
“It’s a sunny day. Put your clothes on and go downstairs. I’m leaving.” (p.118)
If this happened every so often, you’d suspect a poor translation, but this is how the whole book reads. The language deliberately draws attention to itself, forcing you to read between the lines – yet another strategy to keep the reader off-balance.
How successful this all is, though, will depend on your tolerance for ambiguity. Love in the New Millennium takes its readers on a road to nowhere, and while the scenery’s nice, you may well arrive at the end wondering whether the trip was worthwhile. The lack of an underlying plot, or any kind of climax, means that the book may come across as rather fragmented and incoherent, at which point it’s up to the individual to decide what’s going on: is Love in the New Millennium a work of genius or is it closer to a case of the Emperor’s new clothes? That’s something I’ll leave you to decide 🙂
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not quite. I enjoy Can’s work more than some readers do, and I’m quite willing to suspend my disbelief and trust that the writer knows where she’s going. However, at some point that trust needs to be repaid, and I never felt that Love in the Millennium really went anywhere (except in circles, of course). The writer has claimed in interviews that her work might be too complex for many readers, but there’s a fine line between Kafkaesque genius and mere confused scribbling – I’m not convinced Can is always on the right side of that line.
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I suspect that the official judges felt rather the same way I did! There’s obviously something there, but the other longlisted books reward the reader a lot more for their patience and attention. It may well be that the book doesn’t stand up to a reread as well the others, too – I can’t imagine that you’d get much more from it second time around.
Let’s bid a fond farewell to our new friends back at the free port and keep moving – we’ve almost come to the end of our journey. Unfortunately, though, this last leg may prove to be one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the whole enterprise. Violence is a given, and there’s only one way we’re going to get through this unscathed. I hope you have your joke books ready – as it turns out, laughter really *is* the best medicine…