From the cover of The Invisibility Cloak.
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.
Much of the novel is dedicated to audiophile culture and the pursuit of the greatest possible sound system. As an audio enthusiast yourself, can you comment on the spirituality of music and its relationship with these speakers, these machines, in your writing?
The centers of construction, sales, and distribution of audiophile equipment—we might call it “specialized audio-reproduction equipment”—are in Europe and America. But those with the greatest love for this equipment are in Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China. These are people who’ve carried their appreciation for sound quality to a fairly extreme degree. The nineties was really the golden age for audiophiles. I tried consciously to incorporate their specialized, material knowledge into this book. For instance, the fact that I specifically name the Autograph speakers won’t mean much to those who don’t deal in hi-fi, but music aficionados, the cognoscenti, will recognize it right away. For a long time, I was dreaming about writing a horror novel. I wondered if I could apply this desire to a novel about music. Readers might ask, How do you put together a horror story with all this talk about classical music? That was the challenge I decided to overcome.
Your earlier novels were about the countryside—you come from a village south of the Yangtze River. Now you’re writing about the city, especially the modern city. Can you talk a little about the difficulties you encounter there, given that a lot of Chinese literature focuses on rural China?
For Chinese authors, the question of writing on the city is extremely important. There are many other writers like me who were born in the countryside and moved to big cities. I left my hometown at sixteen, I lived for twenty years in Shanghai, and then I lived for sixteen years in Beijing. Authors like us have spent most of our lives in cities. This is a question I put to my students on a regular basis, and many of them have said our fundamental experiences are still tied to the countryside. But I had one student who gave me a different answer that’s particularly correct—he said that fundamentally China has always been built around rural value systems, and therefore cities are still unfamiliar to us. We don’t understand them. Writing The Invisibility Cloak, I made a point of going to southern Beijing, walking around the streets, memorizing the images, the scenes, understanding what went where, and what was there. I was inspired by a great critic who pointed out if you’re going to write about the city, you have to write about a specific place—you can’t write purely on the basis of your imagination alone. A friend and I would go out during the freezing cold Beijing winter sometimes, and my friend would even go on his bike and then call me up and say, This isn’t right, this isn’t right, you should know that such-and-such street is actually here. Writing from that perspective is going to become one of the most important aspects of the authorial experience in China. In the same way that Balzac and Flaubert did real research, Chinese writers have a duty to their urban spaces.
China is being urbanized extremely quickly, and it’s created all sorts of social problems. It’s motivated a profound consideration among Chinese citizens. One of the major problems is this oppositional structure, rural versus urban—it’s oversimplified. People forget that China has had cities for thousands of years! We have our own organic conception of the relationship between city and countryside. The Chinese writer Yu Dafu mentioned this. He said cities like Beijing and other places in the South have been around since the Tang Dynasty, in 600 through 700 B.C. They’ve developed their relationship with the countryside. That relationship was marked very clearly by a particular freedom of exchange—we have people who come to the city from the countryside to take up post officials, we have people who come to the city to settle lawsuits, we have retiring businessmen, retiring scholars, who move back to the countryside. There was a back and forth that existed without the hindrance, the barrier of class consciousness. In a lot of those ancient cities—for instance, in my homeland of Jiangsu—we have parks, private gardens, water features, human-made geography that imitates natural geography. Then along came a totally new and slightly horrifying city—Shanghai! It wasn’t that its buildings were huge or anything, but they invented the concept of class consciousness, a pride of being “Shanghainese,” and pitting it against the identity of being a hick from the countryside. During my time in Shanghai, I kept running into conflict with the Shanghai natives. When Chinese intellectuals talk about urbanization destroying the environment, changing relationships between people, it’s rare when they remember that China has an organically grown form of urban consciousness. It’s hard now because we are inextricably tied to the rest of the world, and the exchange of ideas occurs on that international level—but still, the relationship between the modern urban city, the Ancient Chinese urban city, and the rural countryside should be understood as a triumvirate, not a simple opposition.
One of the groups in The Invisibility Cloak that’s criticized most stridently is the group of intellectuals who like to blow hot air and make revisionist arguments that don’t stand up.
If there’s one group of people in China that I despise more than any other, it would be the intellectuals. As I was studying and teaching, I would go home, back to my parents’ house, and they would say, Oh, we can’t fix these problems, we’ll leave all this to you and the intellectuals. I used to have high hopes and expectations for the educated in China, because of course the scholar has always enjoyed an elevated position there. Scholars are supposed to be the people who take on the world’s problems as their own, who shoulder the world’s burdens. It wasn’t until the late nineties that I began to change my opinions, and I discovered that those who are outside of the intellectual community have ethical standards that we have a lot to learn from, and they’re the ones we rely on for the idea of the country and strong development of the country. These are people who are very misunderstood within the academic circle. I had a significant change in my personal ethics with regard to the rest of the world. Now I have two circles of friends, academics and nonacademics, and it’s from the nonacademics that I’ve learned more about who and how to be. It’s very easy for us to put labels on these people. This friend of mine who’s the model for the main character, he sold shoes, he’s worked in clothing factories, he has opinions on Chinese-Japanese relations, relations with America and Chinese politics. He has his own philosophies, completely different from my intellectual friends. When we all get together, he’ll end up in arguments with them, beating them right down. That particular transformation has changed the way I build relationships with people who are outside my immediate academic circle. It’s not just their meaningless talk. I thought, Are we giving the country to these people? That might not be a good idea. We look at officials and there may be plenty of them we don’t like, but at the very least they seem to have some experience of the actual world. Meanwhile, your scholars, so many go from book to book, and they analyze systems of value, of benefit, and of resources based on what they’ve read.
What’s the meaning behind the name The Invisibility Cloak?
The Invisibility Cloak was not the book’s first title—it was something like Leftover Fragments of Emotion in the Floating Life. I used it, but it gave me a really unlucky, inauspicious feeling. I wanted to add aspects of the horror-movie concept into the title. One of the main characters in the book is invisibility—he carries an invisibility cloak, he disappears yet he reappears, he is the sudden face in the mirror, the flicker in the one frame that then disappears. The model for Cui, the protagonist, this guy has stubbornly built his own quotidian life. I think the destruction of the quotidian life is one of the most unfortunate consequences of modernity. This guy doesn’t wear T-shirts, it doesn’t matter how hot it is, he will never wear short sleeves. He always eats fish, he never eats meat, he never gets up before ten, he will do everything he can to make sure he doesn’t not get out of bed before ten in the morning, and he obviously calls me up at midnight. He keeps to his own life. He’s built this individual ideological structure, which is something I consider admirable and wish more people would do.
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