Starvation and Suffering Also Get You High


Arts & Culture

Can Xue.

“Have you always treated the whole world as your home, Fourth Uncle?”

“Not the whole world—I’m always wandering nearby.”

Books have lighting, I think. And I speak as a dedicated and conflicted reader lured hopelessly away from the page by television and the entire history of film available now on various sites—yet some books drop me nicely in the middle, right in between the modes of reading and watching, to live alongside me in the dilemma.

Can Xue’s Love in the New Millennium is lit a lot like Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The astronaut wanders through the weeds and trees of his dacha before he heads off on his voyage. Yet he is already gone. We are leaving the earth but that is the earth. It’s got this crazy nostalgic light. I mean, it’s not exactly that. Maybe it’s the light of uncanniness that follows our departure from a movie theater during the day, maybe that’s the version of lighting or reality that Can Xue’s book shares with film. I also think of Fellini’s Satyricon and its use of the ancient mode of storytelling in which a character begins to speak and the narrative darts swiftly after them down the rabbit hole of the story. In Can Xue’s Love, all the characters are connected to each other. There’s no one story I can tell. And they are laughing about it, too. At their own inconstancy, their changeability.

At the outset, you meet Cuilan, a widow, so you think it’s about her. No … but it’s way more about her lover Wei Bo. Wei Bo appears at her door to say that something has come up and he can’t keep their date. Weeks pass and he never returns. Cuilan treks off mournfully to her ancestral home. Her relatives (who have all become mysteriously mangled and wizened since the last time she saw them) are hardly welcoming. Then they begin speaking about Wei Bo, which feels inside out, but the world already is. The countryside is destroyed. In the relatives’ house there’s an ambient, estranged type of hearing that’s become commonplace. People chattering out the window, there’s a banging upstairs even if there isn’t an upstairs. At night her relatives are in a tree fighting and laughing and one falls, hits the ground with a thud. She goes out to investigate and everything goes silent at once. Next day (while practically pushing her out the door) her cousin offers this, “Our daytime and nighttime are two completely different days. If you always lived here and never left you’d be able to sense this. It’s too bad you won’t have the chance.” 

Cuilan goes home and is soon walking down the city streets, empty-hearted, when Mr. You, a creep (who later turns marvelous), steps up. He’s been interested in her for a while, and seeing her dejected state he happily calls out: “Can this candidate enter the field now?” As well as being a relentless pursuer of women, Mr. You deals in rare antiques, especially these very wonderful ancient vases which morph into cavernous spaces—a metonym, it seems to me, for a vagina, which might just be the shape of this world. Time and again the narrative tips us off to the fact that reality is intrinsically female. Women are connected, women have friends. When he discovers a pair of women, A Liang and Xiao Lan, hiding in a cabinet in his shop (just having a conversation) we learn the salient fact about Mr. You’s antique artifacts, which is that they are all alive. That is this antiquarian’s secret. And the broadest interpretation of his lust.

Mr. You … asked, staring into her face, “In your opinion, does this vase signify nobility?”

“Of course. I can tell that it’s dark and deep inside. Listen, doves’ wings fluttering!”

She placed the mouth of the vase to her ear …

“The vases … fit doves in them. The vase appears small when it’s actually vast inside—vast to an extent we cannot imagine, so we need an appraiser of treasures like you to measure it.”

Is it praise of his knowledge or is it flirtation. Soon we are back out on the street. We’re thinking of Wei Bo again, who, incidentally, is married. Xiao Yuan is Wei Bo’s ex-wife. Their children are grown, their love is depleted. Yet they are friends, even admire each other. In regards to love, everyone here is immensely practical and ready to go. Xiao Yuan is a teacher who is obsessed with timepieces that she takes with her on her enigmatic trips. Lying on her bunk on a train she announces aloud, “I like to travel. Making a journey is the same as clinging to one place. If you settle down in your hometown, it feels instead as though you are drifting along.” Later the young man listening from the bunk overhead rolls over, falling dead on the floor. There’s a loud sound followed by some bureaucratic fuss and finally there’s nothing left but a bad smell. On the same voyage Xiao Yuan meets an old man who makes cricket sounds so well he makes her laugh. And then he explains that he has become a timepiece himself. She feels his wrist and it is indeed a clock. All his life he has wanted someone to hear his heart and Xiao Yuan does and it is indeed keeping time. They joke about the inevitability of death.

“I’ve always wanted to make someone hear my heartbeat, and now I’ve succeeded. I’m so glad, knowing that you heard.”

Yet his expression was not glad. He seemed to be waiting for something, gloomily.

“The time is two-ten and twenty seconds,” he said.

“Correct. She’s coming over,” Xiao Yuan said.


“That thing that has an appointment with you.”

“Ah yes, she’s coming!” He began to laugh.

Xiao Yuan’s journey takes her to a county town (Nest) for a new teaching job and also to get closer to Dr. Liu, though in a few days she begins wondering if it would be “more real” if the “central role” were played instead by one of her fellows, Teacher Zhong.

I mean, sure, Dr. Liu is a little unavailable, but there’s a sense here, too, that everyone is just singing a song, waving a hand, and having a next thought about how else the drama of their life might unfold. There’s always time for that.

Also, ages change fluidly. Because everyone’s preparing for dying. A janitor, who had fallen to the floor outside Dr. Liu’s office and curled into a ball, explains, “I want to go for a walk inside the ancient city walls, otherwise I cannot close my eyes in death.” It seems like an old man’s final wish, simple enough, yet the word inside has a shifting purpose here. Dr. Liu wonders whether Old Man Yu (who he is learning from) actually came from “inside.” Is this related to the boundless world inside a vase. Is it like the inside of a house perpetually penetrated by outside? Isn’t prison inside. Here in Dr. Liu’s office it indicates perhaps a spiritual rightness, in reference to healing, but it also expresses the versatility of nature and how aptly technology may pierce it. We grow accustomed to the warm philosophical thoughts of Dr. Liu: “He believed needles entering the body were sounding the universe. No need to fear the divide of mountains and rivers—the distance would vanish in an instant. Many years of practice led him to believe this more and more deeply.”

Dr. Liu explains his own confirmed bachelorhood as the result of trying to see everything dimensionally, and how if you looked at marriage that way you’d never enter. Though it seems that right about now he will. At her new job Xiao Yuan discovers that the children she teaches already know everything about the Gobi Desert. Why is she going on, her students ask the other teachers. Children, especially in Nest, are the most magical beings of all. They throw seeds wildly on the ground and grow rapturous gardens because they know how to wait. Adults are busily making rules against owning mice, and a small boy quietly goes about making a home for each one of his. Little Rose, one of Xiao Yuan’s students, wanders off into the forest at night and her teacher follows to protect her, getting herself lost. The child is okay. All the children are fine. Teacher Zhong (the one Xiao Yuan’s considered falling in love with) advises her to relax with the children and “join a collective absentmindedness. Just think, it would be excellent communication!”

Back in the city, Cuilan is moving with a group of mostly middle-aged women (Long Sixiang, Jin Zhu, A Si) who all worked together for a long time at a cotton mill, but today they are sex workers. Cuilan is teetering. Her friends hook up with men at a spa, a few of the lucky ones wind up living with their lovers at the Mandarin Ducks Suites. The spa, by the way, is where Cuilan met Wei Bo. She didn’t like him. She thought he was a jerk.

From the Mandarin Ducks Suites you can see the prison where Wei Bo has mysteriously begun living. Though sometimes you can’t see the prison. And you don’t necessarily go there because of a crime. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the prison is the huge tree behind it that resembles the one behind Cuilan’s ancestral home. Is it the same place. Few know what crimes they are in there for. Trying to get the picture, Wei Bo asks his fellows, “Then what sort of people should stay in prison?” “People like us, more dead than alive, always indecisive. We ought to stay here. I think Lao Lu stays here more for us than for himself.”

The “real” time of the book is unusual. Everyone seems to be outside their life, on a day off, in prison, or on a trip—forever. Yet people eagerly clamor—everywhere they go—in the city streets at night in order to collectively compose the immense play of social reality.

To talk, perhaps? There is no small talk, no phatic. It’s emphatic all the time.

In Love in the New Millennium everyone is a wit, especially children, and everyone has thought deeply about things. The surface is deep. To speak in operatic utterances is the norm. They have great names: Mr. You, Fourth Uncle, Little Rose, a vagrant is named Long Hair. A cabdriver arrives at exactly the right moment to hiss at his passenger: “Your problem is written on your face. The answer is inside my taxi. Get in the car.”

Part of the difficulty of reading Love in the New Millennium was that I couldn’t stop tweeting passages. To be a reader was to become a trailer, and to become an actor, too. It’s irresistible, the way one enters this laughable, shifting no-time where everyone inside is talking about like the weather. It’s also very boring, as a plotless book is. A circling, nonbuilding narrative gets tiring. What’s the pleasure, then? Humor and surprise. It’s a frankly poetic existence. Plus my reader’s sense of awe grew continually at the endless refillability of the thing. The book is a vase, it’s a form.

It’s just that light I mean, which is plot—endless, circling pink streams of never-ending plot. Or no plot. Wei Bo “thought of his own life, a tangle of string.” This guy who does not know what he’s doing is the through line. There’s a matter-of-fact instrumentality about self in this book. One is as wry about existence as existence seems to be about the humans that occupy it and eagerly fill the pages of its novels.

I first heard about Can Xue’s work in the aughts, and on the advice of another wonderful novelist, Laurie Weeks (Zipper Mouth), I picked up a copy of Can Xue’s Dialogues in Paradise—the stories in it were accompanied by a single memoir, in which the writer, a married woman with kids, described writing by hand in notebooks after dinner, after a day of exhausting labor working alongside her husband tailoring clothes. The memoir made manifest the distinct experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution when people entirely ill-prepared for hard physical labor suddenly discovered that had become their lot. Can Xue told about living an impoverished childhood in the countryside with an inventive and ebullient father and a grandmother who explained to the author the magical fairy tales of the earth. This same grandmother starved to death, though we’re told it may have been for the best. She was sixty. In both books, one is confronted by the fact that bodily hardship and labor can produce surreal conditions similar to the Rimbaudian “disorganization of the senses” that my own writing world tried to manifest in poetry and fiction. Can Xue’s work proposes most astonishingly to me that starvation and suffering also get you high, visionary, and even playful. Work, astonishingly hard work, is part of this writer’s kit.

The factory, that cotton mill that we hear so much about in this present book, the back-breaking place that women escaped from to become unlikely yet considerably happier middle-aged whores, is the unforgettable setting for the book’s final moments.

A Si, the youngest of the group (and herself an ex of Wei Bo), climbs a tree and breaks into the now bankrupt and abandoned factory. Going up its damaged staircases she finds an old man, Hong Sheng, gleefully poring over a ledger. He was once the receptionist at the factory. He greets A Si like this.

“I lost my job. I built this loft to live in myself. I want to record the history of the cotton mill. Did you know this factory has a hundred-and-fifty-year history?” A Si watched his face with its tree-bark skin while she shook her head.

“I’ve written almost up to your generation. You, and Long Sixiang, Jin Zhu, Xiao Yan … I gave you the name ‘lovebirds.’ You are the lovebirds who flew away from this hell. Even though I’ve grown old, I’m excited every time I hear news about Miss Si. You are the pride of the cotton mill workers.”

He pulled a large notebook out of the desk drawer, paged through it for a few seconds, then shut it again with a thwack. The path of his thoughts seemed to be broken off, as he started in again from a different point …

“Miss Si, you belong to the earliest group to jump into the  sea of business. I’ve already recorded some of your deeds. The spinning mill will vanish from this earth, but history cannot disappear. This hellish workshop cultivated outstanding women like you. It’s truly a human miracle. You lovebird, now you fly higher and higher. You will not fall so easily, will you?”

That Can Xue, a female novelist, is placing these words in the mouth of a derelict male historian is so upending. And doing so in such a momentary and provisional space as a book, this book! It’s Mr. You all over again and his vases—all the serious men in Can Xue’s world are eagerly studying womankind. This time he’s a classicist, in his way, at work.

It’s a lovely, very cinematic moment that gets undone swiftly. Such arcades are made for smashing. Four patrolling bureaucrats with helmets and sticks barge in, charging both of them with wrongdoing. And almost at once, their ludicrous presence and their accusations start magically taking the building down. The skin on the historian’s face begins to peel. It’s falling away like a mask, like bark. It is all simply a bad and wondrous dream. Or a movie.

“Were you and this person trying to reverse the verdict of history?”

A Si didn’t answer, because she honestly didn’t know.

“Huh, even if he’s hiding in hell,” they go, “I’ll catch him. He actually dares to construct historical incidents! Look at these rotten boards.” These cops are so obviously on the wrong side of things. They are not inside at all. “A Si took a final look at the cotton mill and felt empty. She remembered what Hong Sheng had said and understood what he meant in speaking the word ‘history.’ Wasn’t history an event that repeated unforgettably in the mind?”

Then she does what anyone would. She goes to a café and calls her friends on her cell. The scene shifts from epic to pop. The girlfriends are laughing together at A Si’s crazy story about Uncle Hong’s history project. Their lightheartedness suggests they might even be a little bit ashamed to be written up as sex workers now. The undoing of the manuscript for them is a delight. “It turns out this is also history. Fortunately it’s been destroyed!” In the coffee shop, a strange tall girl waiting on them looks like she’s in high school. Now she’s part of it, too! Her name is Silver, a perfectly good name for someone young who’s actually old.

“I am that history,” she said to A Si, a thread of a bitter smile on her face.

“What history?” A Si asked her.

“The history of the cotton mill. Don’t believe my outer appearance, I am thirty-five years old. I also used to be at the cotton mill. One day I suddenly thought and saw clearly, and I became history. Isn’t history thinking and seeing clearly? Don’t the two of  you agree?” She stuck the candle to the table. No one answered her question …

“Silver, you’ve left your suffering behind, how wonderful,” A Si said.

Then they all walk to the river. Of course. We are still in the inarguable logic of dreams. Silver explains to the others that she is also a prostitute. We’re in another kind of inside. Silver simply says, “I prefer to follow my heart and do as I please.” They are all standing on the riverbank and there are couples in the water fighting loudly. Because there is always a sound and then another.

Fortunately the boom mike is right here.

“Why are these people standing in the river? I sense they are unwell.”

“They don’t have our good fortune, they haven’t become history yet. It takes suffering and waiting.”

People loved that line when I put it on Twitter. And there’s just a little bit more: “ ‘You are saying your history, Silver. I am listening,’ A Si said gently.”


Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, and art journalist living in New York City and Marfa, Texas. Afterglow (a dog memoir) was published by Grove in September 2017, and Evolution (poems) was released this fall. Read their Art of Poetry interview.

This essay by Eileen Myles is the foreword to the novel Love in the New Millennium, by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; published by Yale University Press in November 2018 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.