Ge Fei is one of China’s foremost experimental writers. He started his career in the eighties with “vanguard fiction”—self-reflexive works focusing on history, historical narrative, memory, and myth. Now, for the first time, one of his novels is available in English: 2012’s The Invisibility Cloak, translated by Canaan Morse. It’s the first in our monthly book club with New York Review Books. Set in cutthroat, consumer-driven Beijing, the novel follows Mr. Cui, a down-at-heel Everyman who lives with his sister in an apartment where the wind is always blowing through a crack in the wall. Cui designs and installs custom stereos for hyperrich audiophiles and intellectuals, for whom he has an unreserved contempt. Then he reels in a promising but shady client who demands the best sound system in the world: an assignment that takes Cui to an unexpectedly dark place. The Invisibility Cloak is a comic tour de force; Kirkus Reviews wrote that it “packs in wit, social commentary, and an emotional depth that will lift the reader’s spirits like few recent English-language books.”
Last month, Ge Fei visited New York, where he appeared in conversation at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He was joined by Morse, his translator; and two moderators, Lydia H. Liu and Wun Tsun Tam. The exchange below is a condensed, edited version of their discussion, including some questions from the audience that day.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
What constitutes Chinese reality, particularly from the eighties onward, is always changing. With The Invisibility Cloak, I thought back to 1980, when I was an undergraduate in Shanghai and I felt that life for Chinese people was extremely spiritually rich. People didn’t care about material possessions so much, they didn’t care about clothes, what shoes you wore, what kind of watch you wore, they didn’t care if you knew rich people. In fact, wealth was held in contempt. Every weekend my friends would go to classical-music concerts—Bach, Beethoven, Haydn. Twenty-some years later, the change that’s occurred in this respect is unbelievable—from an incredibly rich spiritual life to a total lack of spiritual enrichment. Materialism is the word of the day. Money. Advancement. I wanted to add clarity to the meaning of classical music, what it meant to the people who lived through that earlier time.
The writing and structure of this book have a deep connection to a question that’s chased me all my life. When everything is moving in one direction—toward money, advancement, and feeling insecure about it—are there people out there who intentionally go the other way? I discovered that in one of my circles of friends in Beijing, these hi-fi enthusiasts, there were a number of such people. It reminded me of a metaphor from a Japanese author I like. He talks about crickets living in a closed box, no sunlight, no windows. You have these singing insects in there, they lay their eggs, they hatch, they grow, they sing, they die. Are there people who are willing to make themselves invisible and keep away from the “sunlight” of contemporary society? The author also mentions seeds—when flowers turn to seed, some will float in the wind and fall into fertile soil, while others will fall into dark corners or on top of trees. I was interested to find that there are people in China who’ve resisted modernity, who have held onto their own value systems. The character I chose as an entry point for The Invisibility Cloak is modeled on one of the great eccentrics I know in Beijing, one of my hi-fi enthusiast friends. Read More