Things are strange out there on the fringes, as the always adventurous Can Xue’s latest novel illustrates.
There is magical realism aplenty in the pages of Can Xue’s beguiling story, but magical realism by way of Calvino, not García Márquez. The opening is a scene from a waking dream, in which a young girl named Liujin strains to make out what voices caught in rustling poplar leaves are saying. By the end of the book, by which time the reader has explored every corner of the quiet frontier town and its strange portals, the wind is still blowing, warm and portentous, threatening to become nightmare as Liujin thinks, “Something must be about to happen.” Indeed. Pebble Town is a place where packs of snow leopards think nothing about descending for a visit, a place where walls and floors are never as solid as they appear to be (“Liujin, there’s an abyss below you!”). Just so, a focal point of the town is a guesthouse that is really just a tent alongside a coal shed beneath a dizzying snowcapped mountain—details that may play on the author’s pseudonym, which means “dirty snow.” But then, Liujin wonders in passing, did the city’s best-known hotel, with its snow leopard caged in the lobby, even exist? There’s a hallucinatory quality to the enterprise as Liujin eventually comes into contact with the other dozen or so major players in the novel, among them her uncle, a bachelor janitor whose “heart swelled with erotic dreams” and whose stories intersect in tangential ways. Can Xue has remarked that all of her fiction is at heart autobiographical. This story is so layered with metaphor and mystery that one imagines it to be informed less by real-life circumstances, though, than an effort to elude the ever present censor, who is likely to be baffled by such things as creatures that may be rats or geckos but “were probably only shadows.”
Odd, atmospheric, and enchanting: a story in which, disbelief duly suspended, one savors improbabilities along with haunting images and is left wanting more.