How weird is too weird? Commentary on random pages from Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue

I’ve read some weird stuff since getting into literature in translation last year. That’s part of the appeal, right? Translated lit is an easy way to find something different, something experimental, maybe something surreal and dreamlike. Last year, I discovered László Krasznahorkai and his intensely weird story collection The World Goes On. I didn’t really “get it,” but I liked it. I also discovered Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Man Booker International Prize with a novel that defies genre. She calls her writing style a “constellation” and I don’t know if we really have that in English. I just finished an odd little book called The Order of the Day, also a prize winner, that is classified as a récit or an “account” rather than straight up non-fiction.

I could go on: a novel told in Facebook-status-like headlines, a speculative fiction about a world where only the elderly are healthy, whatever the heck Comemadre is about.

But now, I think I’ve hit my limit. I’ve found a translated novel that is too difficult to classify, too unmoored, too opaque, just too weird: Love in the New Millennium.

Lacking the intellectual capacity to do an actual review, I have elected to comment on a few random passages, which I quickly took pictures of before returning it to the library.

Okay, a few things first:

  • Although I couldn’t really get anywhere with this book, I did read it rather voraciously, and finished it, despite never understanding what I was reading. That’s… something. I had a similar experience to Michael at Knowledge Lost, I think.
  • Reading this book did dredge up several odd memories – not the kind I tend to dwell on, but things I hadn’t thought about in years. I couldn’t begin to tell you why, but they did have to do with love, and the then-new millennium…
  • Eventually I just thought of this as a very, very long poem, and that kind of helped.

Now, to the random pages, presented roughly in order:

TFW a snake might slither out from a dark thicket

Okay, this is a relatively normal page, in that we are with the (apparent) main character and she’s describing her relationship with her father, and with a Mr. You. Let’s try again…

TFW you can’t rest right now because it’s time for groups of men to come and shatter your display cases

Okay, this is more like it. Wei Bo is another main character. He’s Cuilan’s boyfriend. I do appreciate how everyone eats noodles in this book. But this gives you an idea of the weirdly disjointed dialogue. There’s also a fair amount of Chinese onomatopoeia.

TFW you don’t want to die

Okay, here we go. Non sequiturs about going to the gallows! More onomatopoeia! Pachinko parlours that appear and disappear!

TFW you understand what being human means

If you’re thinking I cherry-picked these and they’re out of context, here’s the beginning of a chapter. By the way, characters start randomly referring to themselves and those they’re speaking to in the third person around the 200 page mark.

TFW your classroom is a space of stillness and also awkwardness

Some of the weirdest parts have to do with Xiao Yuan’s adventures in teaching. I laughed out loud at “She had become the real student” because that’s such a fucking cliche plunked into the middle of a book with no other cliches or even things you can understand…

TFW a scorpion falls in love with you

Okay, last one. At the end, a minor character suddenly becomes the main character, and she has to follow her boyfriend through a sewer, because of reasons. And then he gives her a scorpion, because of other reasons.

Here are a couple other resources, if you decide to take this on. Love in the New Millennium was longlisted (but not shortlisted) for the Man Booker International Prize, and is longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Can Xue won the BTBA a couple years ago, so she’s got a fighting chance. And best of luck to Ms. Can. I have no idea what she’s doing here, but she… sure did it.

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11 comments

  1. Elle

    Ha, these are brilliant excerpts. I’ve never had the easiest time with Asian books in translation, and I’m always pretty sure it’s down to differences in language structure, but what do I know?

  2. Rachel

    …… well OK THEN! I was looking forward to this one because I tend to enjoy Chinese lit and the summary made me think of Milkman but this may be a bit weird even for me…

  3. roughghosts

    I do enjoy Can Xue, but I will wait for this paperback. I wrote about her last novel Frontier back when Numero Cinq was still around and researching I learned that when she is writing, she runs and then sits and writes for an hour every day. She never rereads or edits, just keeps writing until she thinks she has a novel. Surprised? That accounts for some of the disjointedness and characters that appear or disappear. But if you think of it like returning to an ongoing lucid dream night after night for a month, you begin to get the feel. There is a logic, but not so much. However, she creates these scenes that I find stick with you and if you just surrender yourself to the world she creates it’s quite the experience.

    • lauratfrey

      That makes a lot of sense! And yeah, I just had to approach it like a poem and stop looking for a logical narrative. You’re right, it does stick with you.

  4. Kat

    I have this on my Kindle. Every year I try to read something on the Booker International list, but I may very well have picked the wrong one. Something about this list…

  5. annelogan17

    Ugh nope, I can’t do this book, I just can’t. I read a few translations a year from the major publishers, actually House of Anansi has some really good translations that I’ve reviewed on my blog before…but none are freaky-deaky like this one. I just can’t right now!

  6. buriedinprint

    Sometimes I find it helpful to tell myself that it’s more about the feeling than the words.
    Sometimes I find myself deciding to stop reading shortly after that…

  7. Pingback: Little Reunions by Eileen Chang | Reading in Bed

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