Where the bright, shiny things are now

by James Hawes

Xiaolu Guo is a cultural phenomenon. Published in China since her teens, she has been shortlisted for several major western literary prizes as well as lauded for her films at Sundance and Cannes. This was her first book, though A Concise Chinese- English Dictionary for Lovers was published first in English.

'China is better at being American than America': a young woman eats a roll in her local branch of Starbucks, Beijing
'China is better at being American than America': a young woman eats a roll in her local branch of Starbucks, Beijing

Now, there’s a theory that the Golden Age of a nation’s literature tends to coincide with its efforts to be Top Nation. As a rule of thumb this isn’t bad. Think of French literature from Moliere to Stendhal, English from Dr Johnston to Evelyn Waugh, German in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American from Henry James to now.

When a country matters, so do the stories it tells about itself. According to this notion, we should heed anything that might give us a clue about what makes China tick.

Despite the chick-lit cover, don’t come to this expecting the usual recipe of Orientalising books (you know; a magicrealist fest of storytelling, generational intertwining spiced with a timeless, exotic culture and so on). Forget sentimental tripe about cultural otherness.

Yes, the book tastes as Chinese as chilli and garlic and Eight Dragons sauce, but it’s essentially a pure and bracing blast of universal youth. This is a rites-of-passage story told in snapshots, the self-realisation of a country girl, Fenfang, desperate to escape the faceless immensity of the Chinese countryside. Here, her ancestors have ploughed the same fields for ever and “died as if they had never lived”.

There is no sentimentality about Rural Idiocy here: “people lived like insects, like worms, like slugs hanging on the door of the house”. Her wish to become an individual mirrors the history of China, where people have only had to say their age for you to know all you need to know about them.

A person is defined in terms of public events: “We Chinese have been collective for so long that personal histories are not worth mentioning.” Fenfang wants to change all that, and even becoming the 6,787th hopeful in the official queue for work in the Beijing film industry feels like a breakthrough.

The big city ultimately seems as lonely and hopeless as the countryside because this isn’t a tale of “making it” in a material sense, but a typically Romantic voyage of self-discovery. It’s no coincidence that the final words of the book are addressed by Fenfang to Fenfang: “You must take care of your life.” They sum up what the book is all about: the unfolding of a reflective self.

Writing like this rides roughshod over ideas of form and control because (as the young Goethe’s Faust cries) “feeling is all”. The next page might give you a classic Chinese poem, the death of Tennessee Williams or an entirescreenplay-treatment about an Everyman in search of his heart’s desire. It’s all dictated not by logic or structural unity but by a hotline to emotions. Fenfang navigates her unplanned path as much by Hemingway as by eastern poetry.

The “bright, shiny things” she unapologetically longs for can take the form of a country girl’s first ice-cold can of Coca-Cola or of an aphorism from Kafka. Everything is illuminated by the dream of an individual life truly lived.

You may find this kind of heady selfenactment intensely irritating or utterly irresistible. I loved it. It shines with the utterly blameless, scarily fragile arrogance of youth itself, the absolute certainty that death is better than middle age.

When Fenfang shouts at the Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, she is a lineal descendant of the Romantics’ Prometheus, a box-fresh young Bob Dylan, dreaming of spring blossom by the sea while dressed like a character in The Matrix.

If you ever felt like this, you’ll race through this book. If not, poor you. Fenfang’s Boston boyfriend says that “China is better at being American than America”, and on the evidence of this little jewel, Francis Fukuyama was right after all.

There really is only one game in town and if China eats the world it will be because its youth is so ravenous for the West’s very own bright, shiny, Romantic dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at any cost.



Review by James Hawes
the Telegraph, London - 19 january 2008




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