Five Spice Street, Can Xue (trans. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). Yale Press. 352pp, $25.00.
No one and nothing may be trusted in Five Spice Street, the first of Can Xue’s full-length novels to be translated into English. In the neighborhood where the story is set—a three-mile-long street actually—nothing is certain. There is no one truth. Doubt overshadows everything. In this story, a dissonant chorus of voices argues, interrupts, disrupts, contradicts, and gossips, forcing everything into flux. Static, distortion, and noise rule here. As “the writer” suggests:
The crowds on Five Spice Street always had to think everything through every which way: they never reached a verdict lightly, and would never give up on a riddle just because they were temporarily stumped: they had to give it hard thought; if they couldn’t solve it, they would keep their eyes open. Sometimes, a small matter could trigger their thoughts for a long time, and another small matter could suddenly enlighten them.
Parsing out who said what and why within this cacophonous polyphony is challenging, as Xue’s story is filled with parenthetical intrusions and asides and even the simplest statements are placed in quotes. Rumor and gossip amplified to the nth degree: this is what awaits readers in Five Spice Street. Surrendering to the novel’s style, however, is just the beginning. Beyond lie the fabulist and hyper-erotic elements in the story, the many clues found deep within the narrative, and the novel’s “innumerable nested boxes,” as one character puts it. But once the challenge has been met, you just might burst out into hysterics at the wonderful insanity of it all. You have been forewarned.
Five Spice Street is divided into two sections. The first, “Preliminaries,” is an overview of the major characters, among them Madam X, the Widow, Mr. Q, the lame woman, and the young coal worker. “Preliminaries” depicts their intertwining stories, conflicts, and dilemmas, all of which are obscured by the numerous conflicting accounts. The main character, Madam X, brings to mind John Singer Sargent’s painting of the same name, a portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Parisian socialite, who, after rejecting numerous proposals to be painted, finally agreed to Sargent’s request after realizing it would serve as an opportunity to advance in Parisian society.
The painting, like Madam X, is a study in contrasts, Gautreau’s ivory white skin and her black satin dress, the light from her skin emanating against the russet background, her voluptuous figure and her angular face, the painting’s play of revelation and concealment, control and abandon. The Madam X in Five Spice Street is also a mysterious bundle of contradictions, and surely Xue, like Sargent, employed the name as a way of expressing both anonymity and mystery, as well as raising her own character to the stature of myth, symbol, and archetype. It certainly helps that her namesake was rumored to have been guilty of numerous infidelities. And I wonder if Madam X is also a pseudonym for Can Xue, already a pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, which means “dirty snow.”
There are at least twenty-eight views on Madam X’s age—at one end of the spectrum she’s as young as twenty-two and about fifty at the other—and at least five opinions on Mr. Q’s looks. But there is much more to Madam X than what meets the eye—for instance, her eye. The first time “Mr. Q looked at X’s whole face, he saw only one immense continuously flickering saffron-colored eyeball.” And through the course of their affair the “light waves in her senseless eyes,” whose “intensity can illuminate everything in the universe,” was all he could see. Other fantastic rumors abound about X: She’s suffering from a disease. She has supernatural powers to manipulate people and events at whim. She can force people to their grave. She makes dynamite with the intention of destroying a public toilet. She raises scorpions. There are accounts of her using countless mirrors as a kind of magical portal toward achieving cosmic transcendence. But of course doubts are raised about all of these reports. As for Mr. Q’s looks, he is either ugly, or not, that is, if one subscribes to the Chinese proverb “There’s no such thing as an ugly man.” The consensus, if one may call it that, is that Q is “a large man, either ugly or handsome, or with nothing remarkable about him, with a broad square face, and an odd expression, a little like a catfish.”
The rivalry between Madam X and the Widow is one of the novel’s primary plot devices as is the “sex research” they both practice. Madam X’s “dispel boredom movement” (her mysterious system where “spare-time recreation,” one of the many comical euphemisms for sex in this book, is used as a transcendental act) leads to a series of bizarre escapades. One afternoon when “the sky was that kind of sentimental color, without a cloud to be seen, and the edge of the sun is filled with sharp triangles,” Madam X, “lying alone on the beach at the riverside . . . felt the reality of carnal intimacy.” Aroused, she undressed and then “flew in the burning heat, running around wantonly, wildly.” A few women in the town were “inspired” to mirror her. This leads to the entire town “hugging and kissing everyone they saw, touching everyone all over their bodies. One or two even ‘got on with it’ on the spot. It was a noisy, rollicking scene. Everyone was sweating profusely and breathing hot and heavy like oxen.”
Madam X, while largely despised and feared, is often approached for advice, for guidance. Especially in the chapter “Madam X Talks Abstractly of Her Experiences with Men,” we find her in philosophical mode. After laying out her thoughts about the importance of having a mind free of conventional considerations, she says:
Language is also a way of hinting at feelings, because try as hard as you can to communicate your ardor and your dreams to the other, you can’t just show your feelings through action—that isn’t enough. And so you use language. At this time language doesn’t have just the everyday meanings—perhaps it is some simple syllables, some little sounds that have sprouted wings. I can elicit that kind of special language.
The novel’s second section, “The Way Things Are Done,” casts doubt on everything that transpired in section one. The disorientation is extreme, as the first section was itself a shifting kaleidoscope of stories, images, and memories, so disorientating that it’s almost as if a giant reset button had been pressed. The lame woman, in her “official account,” perhaps best reveals the character of Five Spice Street’s second half: “I must tell you again: your imaginary experiences don’t exist. They don’t even have a foreword. All the beginnings you’ve imagined are subjectively trumped up: they’ve resulted from sloppy romantic sentiments spilling over. The real beginning is lost, never to return.”
Can Five Spice Street, with its multiplicity of voices, reportage, affidavits, shifting points of view, be termed a “novel”? Conceiving To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf knew that she wanted to draw directly from her own memories and that the work would not correspond to conventional narrative form. In her diary, she wrote: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel.’ . . . But what? Elegy?” So what is Five Spice Street? A remarkable prose object? Mirrorbox? Or simply call it “novel,” understanding it to mean “fresh” and “new” as in: Can Xue’s novel approach to writing fiction in Five Spice Street offers the reader a delightful puzzle whose pieces constantly change shape and shatter into ever smaller fragments.
The book is challenging, and deciphering its conclusion, having something to do with “a beautiful wave of the future,” is a task in itself. But the fainthearted may use something the young coal worker said as a guide to understanding the book, or any other “difficult” work of fiction, for that matter: “Sometimes, we have to change our way of thinking and look with brand-new eyes before we can enter into the essence of something. This seems difficult and troublesome, but with hard struggle you can make it.”
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. He reviews for Bookslut and blogs at hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm.
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