Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue

Yale University Press, November 2018, 264 pp

Yale University Press, November 2018, 264 pp

A surreal challenge of a book, Can Xue’s Love in the New Millennium, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, kept me entranced much longer than an average novel. The book is only 264 pages long (in Yale University Press’ gorgeous edition) but I often couldn’t read more than 20–30 pages a day because if you miss a sentence, you might have no idea where you are anymore.

Had I been too busy lately, had I slept badly et cetera, this could have been a 2-star read, but the spring sun is finally out in Finland and I’m feeling great so I could approach Can Xue’s bizarre novel with renewed mental and physical strength, and greatly enjoyed the cerebral fun. If that makes sense.

I should note that I approach the novel from a very limited perspective as a Westerner with a negligible knowledge of Chinese culture, so I may have perceived the text as more difficult than it actually is for anyone with a better grounding in China and its culture. Funnily enough, I recently read the first book The Golden Days of Cao Xuegin’s 18th-century classic of Chinese literature The Story of the Stone or The Dream of the Red Chamber, and found it similar to Xue’s novel in terms of (1) a large-ish cast of characters between whom the perspective shifts often, (2) humor in everyday situations, and (3) magical realism.

The third similarity is in a huge role in Xue’s novel. Love in the New Millennium is closer to a dream narrative because of its surrealist nature. (It reminded me of Sjón’s CoDex 1962, which I read recently. Coincidentally, there’s a reference to Iceland on the penultimate page of Love). But I would say it’s just about enough stable: it has a fixed cast of characters and locations.

In the spirit of the ancient Romance tradition (dating back at least to early Greek fiction like Daphnis and Chloe), these locations could roughly be divided into city and country. City is where the novel starts, depicting the cruel working conditions in a factory from which some of the female characters escape to work in a brothel. (That’s a better choice at least in Xue’s wildly imaginative storyworld.) There is a lot of surveillance in the city: men often lurk in some crevices waiting for a chance to get to talk to women. Near the middle of the novel, we approach the natural environment mainly in the form of Nest County, a mystical, magical place where some of the characters find a piece of mind by listening to the sounds of the earth, and one becomes a geography teacher.

And it’s earth that seems to be one of the main elements of the book. In Nest County, Dr. Liu would “sometimes spent the night in the mountains, sleeping in the thick grass with an ear pressed to the ground” in search of some sort of new natural medicine: “He had always felt that there was an undeveloped new world within herbal medicine, a world that grew alongside the human body, with reciprocal, invisible connections between them.” Throughout the book, there are multiple references to caves, muddy earth, sewers, all things underground or terrestrial basically. Additionally, there are many references to “ancient city walls” from which “small animals” appear in the outside world. In a nutshell, there seems to be a yearning toward some ancient interior (a nest?) as many of the characters are looking for their ultimate “hometown.” Places tend to have an ephemeral quality in the novel, often disappearing after visits or drastically changing in appearance so that they’re unrecognizable.

Love is a very heteronormative concept in Xue’s storyworld. I guess one could frown upon the old-fashioned (and very not 21st-century) idea of love in the book, but I’m rather awed by Xue’s strong and very peculiar aesthetic vision: the story has a very distinctive timelessness to it. Love seems to function as a dyadic and inescapable concept here: women yearn for men and vice versa but always find it hard to find a suitable partner. This yearning seems to tie in with fears of confinement, and closer to the end of the novel there is some sort of a liberating fire – liberation from love? Or a fire the liberates the character from the fear of confinement?

Outside there were explosions of thunder, then lightning ignited the giant pile of wastepaper at the doorway. A huge fire sealed off the door, expelling thick billows of smoke into the room. Everyone started coughing, A Si was also coughing. Suffocating, she tried to rush out, but these people would not let her go. … Suddenly a light shone in A Si’s mind, and she shouted, “This is the free port!”

I’m obviously pouring my own interpretations into the novel, but its indecipherable nature seems to call for it. Like Eileen Myles notes in the introduction, Love in the New Millennium is more of a vase that the reader fills by reading. And I like that in books. I typed this review in one go in 30 minutes or so, and it’s not often I’m this enthused to share as much about a book after finishing. I think it attests to the novel’s greatness. Thank you, MBI 2019, for introducing me to this fantastic author!