“UFO In Her Eyes”, by Xiaolu Guo

UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo.

Around a month ago, I read a book called A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by a Chinese author who I`d not heard of before, Xiaolu Guo. Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese novelist, essayist and filmmaker who, born in 1973, belongs to a wave of Chinese writers and artists known as the ‘Chinese Post 70’s Generation’. It is a term to denote artists who were born in the 1970’s, and who grew up in China after Chairman Mao’s death in 1976.  It is also known as the ‘Post Cultural Revolution Generation’, or ‘Post Maoism Generation’.

One of the trademarks of this movement is, compared to the previous generations, they were allowed to immerse themselves in a more liberal way of writing, not limiting themselves to the desires of the Communist party.

What I especially liked about Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was her ability to capture a meeting between two entirely different cultures and languages. She shows how one (seemingly) universal, yet (undeniably) hard to define concept as love is able to connect people. Another aspect I immediately became interested in, is how in the book, Guo illustrates how important language is to our understanding and interaction with the world, culture and emotions around us. (I wrote a post on this book, so if you want to read a somewhat more elaborate explanation of this, I recommend you read it!)

After finishing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, I wanted to check out more of Guo’s authorship. After some research, I find out that she has written eight novels, where the two first publications are written in Chinese, while (as I can understand) the remaining five are written in English. UFO In Her Eyes was published in 2009, and one of the novels written in English – i.e not gone through an English translation from the original.

In UFO In Her Eyes, The National Security and Intelligence Bureau are investigating an event in which Kwok Yun, a 37 year old illiterate peasant, has been reported to witness something peculiar in the sky; a spinning metal plate. Agents from the bureau interview the inhabitants of Silver Hill Village, the place where the sighting happened, individually. They encounter different personalities, who all have their own role in the pre-Industrialized village; butcher Ling Zhu, stall holder Kwok Zidong, tea farmer Fu Qiang and rice farmer Wong Jing, to name a few. They all have different opinions on the village’s political status quo, the social situation in China in general, of the circumstances surrounding Yun’s strange UFO sightings, and whether there might be any connection between the three.

Kwok Yun is also under investigation for having assisted an unknown Western traveler she sees immediately following the UFO sighting. The middle-aged white man is laying on the side of the road, clearly in need of help. It turns out he is bitten by a snake, and Yun takes him with her to her home in order to tend to his wounds. They are unable to communicate verbally to each other, and they know nothing about one other – except she is wearing a T-shirt with Western writing on it that the man is able to understand.

A few months later, the village receives a letter from this man, sent from his homeland of America. In the letter, he explains who he is and why he was in Silver Hill Village in the first place. He also shows his gratitude of being helped by the stranger Yun, by including a check of 2000$USD, a considerable amount of money for the villagers.

This sparks a debate between the inhabitants; how should they spend their newly acquired money?

UFO In Her Eyes is a light, humorous and most of all satirical take on China’s problematic social history, focusing especially on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While the novel takes the paranoia, and real-world effects, of surveillance by Big Brother seriously, it is also able to depict the inhabitants of the village as down-to-earth people with a self-reflection over their situations. While being isolated from the benefits of living in a big city – such as education and health care – they do not come across as naïve or unaware of their own social misfortunes. But implying that the village inhabitants have reasons to be socially misfortunate would be incorrect and even condescending of me. What I`m trying to point out is that, even though the agents from The National Security and Intelligence Bureau give off an aura that demands respect and formality, the villagers are able to meet them, talk to them, and recognize them as one of their own, and they are not afraid of speaking harshly or humorously to them. The villagers do not try to glorify their situation, either. They speak their minds and share their opinions and experiences without being afraid of saying negative things about Big Brother.

It is the interaction between the villagers and the agents that makes UFO In Her Eyes delightfully satirical. Knowing far too little about the subject, I have nevertheless made a tentative conclusion as to what might be the reason for Guo to be able to write a story like this. I believe the answer is because she belongs to the before mentioned ‘China Post 70’s Generation’. The writers belonging to this generation did not feel the direct effects of Mao`s restrictive China, politically, socially or culturally. Maybe Guo, and the other writers, was able to be more liberal and non-restrictive with her writing, and her filmmaking, than what the generation of artist prior to her would have been.

And so I end this review in much the same manner as my last one of Guo`s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, namely by expressing my desire to read more of the author. In order to approach an answer to my musings, I would like to read her latest novel Once Upon a Time In The East, a chronicle of memoirs, or her 2004 autobiographical novel Village of Stone. Both these books discuss her childhood, what is was like growing up in China, and eventually moving to the West, and all the changes this might imply for her.

UFO In Her Eyes has also been made into a film, released in 2011 and directed by Guo herself.

(Actually, before I leave you alone, I encourage you to read this (very short) interview of Guo from 2004 in connection to the publication of Village of Stone, that I found on her website: http://www.guoxiaolu.com/REV_WR_VS__secret_life_coral.htm. It tackles a little of what I`ve pondered in this text.)

Ok, bye.

~ milk

“A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”, by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo.

If one wishes to learn a new language, one does not only get insight into a new way of speaking through cramming glossary, rules of grammar or correct spelling. One also learns a new way of seeing and perceiving reality. This is one theme Xiaolu Guo discusses in her book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

Xiaolu Guo is a writer and moviemaker, born in a fishing village in China. Her literary and cinematic project takes it’s basis on her own experiences and travels from growing up in a small Chinese village, to becoming an established writer in a foreign language. She explores alienation – how young people go forward in unknown territories and situations, and how they go about acquiring new knowledge.

The book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is originally written in English. (Keep a look-out on this blog for my forthcoming post about her book UFO In Her Eyes for closer information on how Guo has written her other books.) I read this book in a Norwegian translation.

We follow protagonist Zuang Xiao Qiao moving from the village she comes from in China, to London, where she is going to learn English. We start as Zhuang: as beginners. We are beginners in the West, and understand the things around us, the culture and society as Zhuang immediately does. This is expressed, among other ways, through language. At the beginning of the book, the language is simple, the sentences short. However, as she learns the language better, the text’s language also becomes more advanced.  Every chapter deals with a new word, or a term – as if the book was a dictionary – and this word is the theme for that chapter. We learn how Zhuang is used to using the term in China, and how this is different from in London.

Not so long after she moves to London, Zhuang meets a man – twice her age, ex-punker, vegetarian – who she falls in love with. The meeting between the two, and their interactions together throughout the book, is Guo’s main tool in her project to highlight the biggest cultural differences between the East and the West’s perception of the world. One way in which Guo mirrors these, is how Zhuang consistently introduces herself to this nameless man and his friend, as simply ‘Z’. ‘Z’, and only ‘Z’, allegedly because she believes her real, full name would be too complicated for naïve English speakers to pronounce, or even to remember.

The book is also very much about differences, and the acceptance of differences, on an individual level. One example of this, is Z’s reaction to the man’s vegetarianism. She is unable to understand how he is capable of obtaining proper nutrients without eating meat. She is served self-grown greens and vegetables, while she misses the chicken and pork from home.

One of the first things that hit me in the reading of this book, was the author’s way of depicting how cultural differences – as well as individual perceptions of reality – is expressed through language. One country’s language is immensely important, not only when communicating with another person, but also when it comes to understanding the very way of thinking, and the philosophy of existence, belonging to another culture. Should we connect this to something abstract and difficult to define as the idea of love, then we have a foundation for a very interesting conversation – and Xiaolu Guo handles it masterfully. The book is above all an educational one: we get the opportunity to put ourselves in a completely different culture on an individual level. It is one thing to learn about a different culture in a huge and comprehensive lexicon – and quite a different thing to be placed in a simple, innocent destiny (as with Z’s).

My opinion is that in the work to achieve a bigger acceptance of a growing universal, social diversity, it’s important to try to widen one’s cultural horizon, put ourselves in foreign shoes, and question the most obvious of things. This book offers a step in the right direction. I look forward to reading more from Xiaolu Guo!

~milk

`Fremmedordbok for kjærester´av Xiaolu Guo

Fremmedordbok for kjærester av Xiaolu Guo

Ønsker man å lære seg et nytt språk, får man ikke bare innsikt i en ny måte å snakke på gjennom pugging av gloser, grammatikkregler og rettskriving. Man lærer seg dessuten etter hvert en ny måte å se og oppfatte virkeligheten på. Dette er et tema forfatteren Xiaolu Guo tar opp i boken Fremmedordbok for kjærester.

Xiaolu Guo er forfatter og filmskaper som kommer fra en fiskelandsby i Kina. Hennes litterære og filmatiske prosjekt tar utgangspunkt i hennes egne erfaringer og reiser fra å vokse opp i en liten kinesisk landsby, til å bli en etablert forfatter på et fremmedspråk. Hun utforsker hvordan unge mennesker går frem i ukjente områder og situasjoner, hvordan de tillærer seg nye kunnskaper i en ny hverdag.

Boken Fremmedordbok for kjærester er originalt skrevet på engelsk, med tittelen A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Jeg leste en norsk oversatt utgave.

Vi følger hovedpersonen Zhuang Xiao Qiao, som flytter fra landsbyen hun kommer fra i Kina, til London hvor hun skal lære seg engelsk. Vi starter som Zhuang; som nybegynnere. Vi er nybegynnere i den Vestlige verdenen og forstår tingene rundt oss, kulturen og samfunnet som Zhuang, i hennes møte, umiddelbart forstår dem. Dette kommer til uttrykk blant annet i språket. I begynnelsen av boken er språket enkelt, setningene korte. Men etter hvert som hun lærer seg språket bedre, blir også tekstens språk mer avansert. Hvert kapittel tar for seg et fremmedord, som om boken var en ordbok, og dette ordet blir tematisert gjennom kapittelet. Vi får lese om hvordan Zhuang er vant med å bruke begrepet fra Kina, og hvordan dette er forskjellig fra i London.

Ikke så lenge etter at hun flyttet til London, møter Zhuang en mann – dobbelt så gammel som henne, eks-pønker, vegetarianer – som hun forelsker seg i. Møtet mellom disse to, og samhandlingen deres gjennom boken, er Guos hovedverktøy i sitt ærend å sette lys på de største kulturforskjellene mellom Østens og Vestens virkelighetsoppfatning. En måte Guo speiler disse forskjellene på, er hvordan Zhuang introduserer seg selv som ‘Z’ til denne navnløse mannen, og hans venner. Kun ‘Z’, og ikke noe mer, angivelig for hun tror hennes fulle navn vil være for komplisert for naive engelsktalende mennesker å huske eller uttale.

Boken handler om forskjeller på individplan. Et eksempel er Zs reaksjon på mannens vegetarianisme. Hun kan ikke forstå hvordan han skal kunne få i seg ordentlig næring uten å spise kjøtt. Hun blir servert selvgrodde grønnsaker, mens hun lengter hjem til sitt kylling, – og svinekjøtt.

Noe av det første som slo meg i lesningen av denne boken, var forfatterens måte å skildre hvordan kulturforskjeller – så vel som individers virkelighetsforståelse – kommer til uttrykk gjennom språket. Et lands, en kulturs språk er uvurderlig viktig ikke bare når det kommer til å kunne kommunisere hverdagslig med en annen person; språket er dessuten viktig om en ønsker å forstå selve tenkemåten og tilværelsesfilosofien til en annen kultur. Kobler man dette opp mot noe så abstrakt og vanskelig definerbart som kjærlighet, har man et interessant utgangspunkt for enhver diskusjon, noe Guo med denne boken utfører på mesterlig vis. Boken er dessuten en lærerik en – vi får muligheten å sette oss inn i en totalt annerledes kultur på et individ, og – hverdagsplan. En ting er å lese om det i en stor, omfattende faktabok, en annen å forsøke å sette oss inn i en enkel, uskyldig, skjebne.

Jeg mener at i arbeidet med å oppnå en større aksept av et voksende universelt mangfold, må man forsøke å utvide den kulturelle horisonten vår, sette oss inn i andre måter å forstå hverdagen på enn den vi er vant med, og sette spørsmålstegn det vi ser på som de mest åpenbare tingene. Denne boken tilbyr et skritt i riktig retning. Jeg gleder meg til å få muligheten til å lese mer av Xiaolu Guo!

~milk

“The Accursed”, by Joyce Carol Oates

 

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates        

the-accursed

In one of the review-excerpts of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel The Accursed (2013) featured in the first pages of my edition, Stephen King wrote: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel”. This intrigued me greatly, as I am very much interested in both the Gothic and the postmodern – so, offered a novel with both these elements, I set out to read it with a tentative question posed in my mind; What makes this novel postmodern and Gothic?

Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed include many of the tropes one finds in Gothic literature: specters and ghosts, murderers and ‘cannibal sandwiches’, overworked scholars and professors, mysterious and inexplicable events and landscapes, and a frame narrative to pack it all in. The frame narrative is important, as, while it is not a wholly original turn of the Gothic, it gives the reader a sense of reading a document ‘lost and found’, and of h**self being a part of a professorial research team devoted to investigate an age old enigma yet to be solved, something that is, I dare say, inherently Gothic. (We find this in other Gothic and horror writers as well, best showcased in Lovecraft, for example.)

The enigma to be solved in The Accursed occurs at a wedding between ‘part-retired Presbyterian minister’ Dr. Winslow Slade’s granddaughter Annabel Slade and Lieutenant Dabney Bayard in Princeton, New Jersey – June 4th, 1905. A few weeks before the wedding, Princeton has been visited by ‘a lawyer from Carnahan, Virginia, with an association with the Presbyterian Church’, a man rather malicious named Axson Mayte. There is, however, something odd about Axson, something that everyone who meets him prior to the wedding picks up on, but are not entirely able to accurately pinpoint. Through the investigating narrative of scholar M.W. van Dyck II we get to read different academics and historians perspective of Mayte, but the most consensual understanding is that Mayte is the first public manifestation of the Curse. Broadly explained, Mayte shows up at the church door during the wedding and, variously perceived by the invited guests as re-told by van Dyck II, inexplicably draws Slade to him before they disappear like ghosts, “as if into thin air”.

During my master’s course The Gothic Imagination, I wrote an essay about how the existence of two different, yet parallel spaces in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967)  – the real, physical space of Rosemary’s reality, and the abstract, metaphysical space of her dreams – combine in order to create a new kind of space; a transcendental reality, if you will. Impossible consequences manifest themselves in her real life – impossible because they are consequences only of something she claims to have dreamed, and not of something from her physical reality. (As I look back and browse the earlier blogposts on this site, I become aware that, for some reason, this is something that greatly amuses and interests me.) Joyce Carol Oates achieves some of the same effects in this novel, too. Through hard work, the scholar who narrates the tale (again, his name is M.W. van Dyck II) has been able to get a hold of Annabel Slade’s own journal where she has written about the time spent with Axson Mayte, after disappearing from her own wedding. Without spoiling too much, I would like to simply point out that the technique used in Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby here discussed, is also used by Oates in this segment of the novel. Mayte takes her to a place that does not necessarily exist in ‘real life’ – somewhere called ‘the Bog Kingdom’. What happens in this Kingdom is incomprehensible for both Slade and van Dyck II as they’re happening – but once we return to the ‘real world’ we see that the consequences from these events nevertheless manifest themselves in the ‘real world’ – so they must have happened, whether in this world, or the next.

(There is, additionally, another, even more striking example of this, one that shows Oates’s borrowing of this technique in a much clearer light. But telling you that would be a spoiler of significant magnitude, so much so that I will refrain from writing it here.) (You’ll have to read the book and see if you can spot it. (It’s towards the end of the book.))

Another turn of the Gothic in The Accursed is the fact that the supernatural (the ghost), or in this specific case, the Curse, is never always the same person – or ‘thing’. As in all good and solid Gothic fiction, the supernatural evil is capable of taking on different shapes – the Curse is essentially a shapeshifter. That is to say Axson Mayte is not the ‘only’ manifestation of the Curse. But is he the ‘pure’ Curse – the Master –  or just a deviant of it – a servant? Or maybe there does not exist such a hierarchy of evil, and Mayte is just one of several ways in which the Curse can be allowed to stay in Princeton. Whatever the answers to this, the result is more or less the same; We can never be sure who (or where) the primary source of the Curse is. We, the readers, become paranoid. Even the characters we think we know well may be part of it. We never know where – or to whom – the Curse might strike next.

What is fresh and something I haven’t encountered before, in Oates’s Gothic novel, is the inclusion of a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history. The readers get to follow Upton Sinclair’s revolutionary ambition about equality founded on Nietzschean philosophy, his life situation during the writing of his The Jungle, and his appreciation of fellow American socialist Jack London. On one side, I think this socialist, revolutionary aspect of the novel, while particularly interesting and engaging to me in and of itself, is ill fitted in the overall Gothic, ghost/’vampire’ atmosphere of The Accursed. I do appreciate, however, the parallel it draws up at the end of the tale, and the resulting effect of it is a trope very much belonging to the Gothic; Using Sinclair’s hard-working discipline, his vigorous vegetarianism and his admiration of London, and by raising the expectations, hopes and dreams of Sinclair (as well as the reader), of the just cause (for then only to shatter them again toward the end), Oates is able to intriguingly question the validity and power of personal ambitions, dreams and passions. So, by looking at it (‘it’, i.e, the inclusion of ‘a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history’) like this, it is more understandably relevant in The Accursed, as the resulting effect does fit rather well in a Gothic setting.

Although the novel is rather long (my edition is 667 pages), with some passages in it that made me personally question the relevancy of this particular topic to the whole of the novel, I would certainly recommend experiencing it. The passages in questions might not strikingly or obviously fit the rest of the Gothic atmosphere of the novel, but after having finished them all and been able to put them together in the bigger picture, I realize what Oates is doing is rather innovative, creative and, ultimately, transgressive (which, keep in mind, is what the Gothic ultimately is all about.)

Stephen King was right when writing of The Accursed that it: “may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel.”

~ milk

 

 

 

 

 

“Seveneves”, by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

seveneves

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson’s newest science fiction novel published in 2015, clocks in at about 860 pages and presents interesting and hopeful ways in which humanity might preserve itself after an apocalyptic event. It is a roller coaster of a science fiction novel – a firework – and there are several reasons for that. The topics it deals with – ranging from possibilities in scientific engineering, political conflict, as well as ethics in genetics (genethics?) – is one. Stephenson looks at the various ways in which humanity might deal with an astrophysical event that most likely will not happen in real life, but is still not completely impossible.

The narrative atmosphere kicks in at the very beginning – as does the plot; in the novel’s first sentence, the moon inexplicably blows up. People on Earth – scientists, politicians, doctors, cab drivers, royal families, Buddhists monks alike – as well as on the International Space Station – engineers working on projects not associated with the moon’s blowing up – all either accidentally witness the event in real life, or understand what has happened after seeing the remains of the moon swirling in space. They all give their own personal, immediate opinion on the matter. At first it seems like a beautiful thing to look at but after a little investigation it turns out the consequences are far more dire than what the everyman might have imagined.

The reader gets to follow a group of highly regarded smart people as they investigate and try to understand the reasons for the moon blowing up. One of these personalities is astronomer Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, Ph.D., who works from Earth to make calculations on what might be expected to happen in the coming years, and how the people on Earth should prepare. On the International Space Station, the readers meet Ivy Xiao and Dinah MacQuarie, who both get discharged from their projects they were busy with before the event in order to focus all their energy on teaming up with astronomers and other scientists down on Earth with finding answers.

But these three aren’t the only ones. By far. They might have the most important roles at the beginning of the book, but as events unfold, more and more characters are introduced. Don’t get me wrong; by no means does Stephenson utilize too many, or at any point use irrelevant characters in the narrative. What I was personally surprised to find out, was that the people I thought was the protagonists, not necessarily was. And this worked the other way as well; characters introduced at the end of one chapter might have a bigger importance than what I originally thought. By the end of the book it was almost like reading a completely different novel. (But only almost.)

The use of literary characters in Seveneves is another element that makes it a firework of a science fiction novel.

Science fiction, to me, is the ultimate transgression. No other literary genre walks the fine line between what is real and what is imaginary. Only in science fiction is an author able to play with the unlikely-but-not-impossible. It is in science fiction people can create what today seems laughable but might be true tomorrow. Stephenson is no exception. He manages this incredibly well, sketching out possibilities not only associated with scientific engineering, but with the dilemmas accompanying taking control of the use of human genetics as well. The moon blows up in the first sentence; but other problems and consequences arise that I will not explain as it would be a spoiler (read the book!), but what I need to say in order to make my next praise is that humans need to find a new way of living if they are to persevere. It’s an “ultimately uplifting” (Financial Times, on the back of the book) story, I agree. But the meat of it does not strike me as uplifting. Nor is it directly pessimistic. There is a narrative distance in the way the narrator conveys the events, and the characters in the novel all seem to be very realistic and not very Romantic (with a capital R), nor nostalgic about what they all eventually know what will happen. They have problems, complications and troubles they need to deal with, and that’s what they do.

Stephenson has no problems relating these troubles and complications. It is almost like reading an architectural blue print of a planned building. Not that I ever have read one of those. But the point is, as I was reading the various structures Stephenson imagines, I was lost in my thoughts, trying to envision them as I read. Which is something any author of any fiction should strive to make the reader do.

However, this presents a potential problem in the narrative. The finely written descriptions of the various structures sometimes come in the way of plot advancement. This is not only evident in parts where structures are being described, but does also become true when explaining the history of the plot, or of the various new characters that come into play. To me, this could at times be distracting. When I was focused on the plot, and wanted it to proceed forward, Stephenson was busy accounting for, and explaining, the nature of something periphery to the immediate narrative action. That being said, I was never bored while reading Seveneves. In fact, on the contrary; Stephenson’s narrative power never dulls, and he keeps it interesting even in places where the plot might have been put on pause in order for other elements to be conveyed. The power in his storytelling is so consistent, that – as I mentioned earlier – it keeps true to itself from the very first sentence to the last part of the book. (The part that I felt like belonged to a different book completely. Because of the narrative power – among other reasons, of course -, I knew I was still reading the same book, even if it felt like a different one.)

A sidenote: As I was writing this post, it came to my attention that Skydance Media has hired William Broyles Jr., Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to adapt the novel into a feature length film. Very cool news, I will most definitely be looking out for more news on this!

 

~ milk