Vertical Motion by Can Xue (trans. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). Open Letter, 186 pp. $13.95.
In a 2006 article Can Xue writes that whenever readers ask directly what her stories are about, she claims not to know. She denies knowledge of her stories’ meanings, she admits, because she is “profoundly afraid of being misunderstood.” Such is Can Xue’s fear of being misunderstood, it seems, that she makes it as difficult as possible for her stories to be, in any easy way, understood, limiting the possibility of any reader thinking they might understand. Or so the collection of bizarre and unsettling stories contained in Vertical Motion would suggest.
The writer and translator Lydia Davis, in a preface to her story sequence, Swimming in Egypt: Dreams While Awake and Asleep, explains how she reprised a project undertaken by the Surrealist Michel Leiris in his Night as Day, Days as Night. Davis too decided to record her dreams and her dreamlike waking experiences, but unlike Leiris, did not identify which were which. Vertical Motion reads like a similar project, with the stories subject to an esoteric categorization withheld from the reader. Some read like accounts of dreams, others replicate the chaos and bizarreness of the dream state, while others, which feature characters having actual dreams, stray so far from logic and narrative coherence in their waking action that they require the accession of the dream to root the reader in the story’s surreal reality. “Moonlight Dance” offers one example of this.
The story is narrated by a subterranean creature who tills the earth in much the same way as an earthworm does. But the narrator is not an earthworm. Our narrator is often accompanied by earthworms while tilling, but sometimes emerges from the earth to hitch a lift on the back of a bat, the better to view the lion he or she is obsessed with. Besides attempts to encounter the lion, the narrator is also engaged, on and off, in burrowing to find his or her grandfather, who may or may not be still alive. The story then launches into a series of narrative non-sequiturs involving the charred remains of fireflies (“The idea is that they till their own bodies”), an encounter with a “boring” old fish in a stone cave, and a tumult of fleeting thoughts and unceasing self-questioning on the subjects of these encounters and the ever-present obsessions with the lion and grandfather. When the narrator, mid-dig, says, “Time kept passing and I was still in the same place,” we share this disorientation. But something close to reality, the reality of the story, at any rate, is restored when the narrator, exhausted from tilling, falls asleep and dreams: “I dreamed for a long time. In my dream, I ate a lot of earth.” Here Can Xue subverts the usual formulation of dream as scattered state of consciousness and instead allows for dreaming as a moment of respite, a means of reaching some kind of equilibrium, narratively at least.
If you read the stories in sequence, “Moonlight Dance” acquires yet another level of bizarreness—that of familiarity: it appears to be a reprise of the opening story, also the title story, featuring the same narrator or one of this same race.
“Vertical Motion” follows the progress of M. Many years ago, one of their number “crossed the dividing line and vanished in the desert above.” It is not known what became of this ancestor, but the narrator becomes obsessed with him: “Like everyone else, I dig the earth every day and excrete. But when I sleep, I have some odd dreams. I dream of seeing people; I dream of seeing the sky above.” Dreams, in other words, of another world. In the end, our narrator follows the path of their ancestor (a journey which requires “vertical motion”) to emerge, not into the outside world, exactly, but into a world of sand, a desert, “the uppermost crust of the earth,” and possibly into, if M is indeed the narrator of “Moonlight Dance,” another story.
The notion of parallel worlds recur throughout Vertical Motion, not just explicitly, as in the title story, or in the notion of waking and dreaming states, but in the general sense that each character occupies her own, individual world; that characters exist alongside one another in separate space/time continuums, each story offering a brief moment when individual continuums correspond. But this synchronicity does not last for the duration of the story. The laws of physics seem to unravel, characters improbably appearing or disappearing from one another’s view, as in “Rainscape,” or in, “A Village in The Big City,” a story whose name alludes to another, related, motif: indistinct geographies.
Characters live in “the suburbs” (the narrator of “Elena”), or move from “the town” to “the country” (the family in “Papercuts”). In “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” the narrator’s husband acquires the rare seeds of this eponymous plant (which grows entirely underground—the subterranean again), from a relative who lives “in another place.” These indistinct geographies suggest notional boundaries, as arbitrary as those between waking and dreaming. They align with Can Xue’s sensitivity to privacy (characters in “Night Visitor” and “An Affectionate Companion’s Jottings” shut themselves away), and support the suggestion that characters walk in and out of one another’s worlds: the characterization is notional enough to allow for the possibility that when one character dozes off, or loses conscious contact in some other way with the reality of the story they feature in, they are concurrently appearing in another story a few pages on.
So while individually, stories elide direct connection with the material world of the reader, collectively they interconnect, the mesh of themes and motifs and echoes (literally in the case of the many transcriptions of onomatopoeic sounds) building a cumulative sense of the writer’s private world, or vision.
Of all the narrative themes that occur in Vertical Motion, that of private labor best symbolizes this notion. “Father” in “Night Visitor” who undertakes a project involving papers and scissors he hides from his daughter, the teenage girl in “Papercuts” obsessed with cutting sheets of paper into beguiling shapes, the old woman in “Cotton Candy” who continues to operate her machine long after she’s run out of sugar to fill it, are just some of the characters whose lives are defined by a labor whose value goes unrecognized by those around them.
“When I write,” Can Xue says, “I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.” Disconnecting language from knowledge, then, she privileges the act of writing. Writing as labor. Writing as a labor whose meaning only she knows. Meaning in the more general sense does not reside in the stories then, so much as in Can Xue’s compulsion to write them, or simply, to write. We call such writers, “writers’ writers.” We read them primarily for their integrity of vision, however difficult and impenetrable. This means, as Can Xue humbly acknowledges, that many people will not like her stories or may even find them boring or frustrating. But those who persist will be granted a glimpse into the private world of another.
To seek access to the private world of another is to try to understand the other, but not in the manner of easy empathy as solicited by the cleanly-told tale. Rather, it is in the way in which Can Xue’s subterranean heroes ingest earth. The narrator of “Moon Dance” of the lion:
When I thought of the animals that he ate, I felt disgusted with him. I abhorred killing. I — and the earthworms, too — ate only the earth, and even that we didn’t really eat. We merely let the earth travel through our bodies, that’s all.
Or, as Can Xue puts it, “The relationship between a successful work and its readers is described by the priest in Kafka’s The Trial when he says to K, ‘It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go.’”
Natasha Soobramanien’s writing has appeared in The Happy Hypocrite, The Quietus and in Luke Williams’ novel, The Echo Chamber (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Viking 2011), for which she wrote two chapters. Her first novel, Genie and Paul, a cannibalistic translation of Bernardin Henri de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, will be published by Myriad Editions in 2012.
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