“frontier,” a mesmerizing novel by the Chinese author Can Xue, which was published in translation earlier this year by Open Letter Books, begins with a young woman named Liujin who has decided to make a life for herself in Pebble Town. The area is unusually abundant with animal life: the novel’s first chapter teems with wagtails, willow warblers, geese, horses, snow leopards, wolves, sheep, goats, geckos, and frogs. At first, “frontier” resembles a fish-out-of-water story; as Liujin encounters new people in the market where she sells cloth, we imagine that she will be tested and changed according to some established narrative laws. The reader quickly abandons this notion, however—along with the expectation that anything like a traditional plot will emerge. This is not to say that nothing happens in “frontier.” In fact, things are happening all the time. Each chapter is devoted to between one and four of about a dozen characters, many of whom migrated to Pebble Town to work at the mysterious Design Institute. Liujin, we are told, “had never understood anything about the Design Institute—not the people and not the work, either. From the time she was old enough to understand things, she had listened closely and observed. Sometimes, Dad would explain a little to her, but his explanations frequently drew her into deeper, more complicated, and darker entanglements.”
The author, whom the American novelist and editor Bradford Morrow has described as one of the most “innovative and important” in contemporary world literature, revels in such mysteries and entanglements. Can Xue is the genderless pen name of Deng Xiaohua, who was born in 1953, in Changsha City, in Hunan Province. In Chinese, the name means “residual snow,” a phrase, Deng has explained, that is used to describe both “the dirty snow that refuses to melt” and “the purest snow at the top of a high mountain.” The moniker hints at the author’s contrary relationship to contemporary Chinese literary culture, which, she has said, provides “no support for originality, which is sometimes even suppressed.” In interviews, her persona is mischievous; she regularly refers to herself in the third person (“Why do young people matter so much for Can Xue? Because they are Can Xue’s hope”) and sometimes communicates in an almost mystical register. The essence of her artistic mission, she has said, lies in “waking up people’s souls” and “drawing information from Great Nature.”
Mao’s Cultural Revolution played a catastrophic role in Deng’s childhood. Her parents, both of whom worked at the newspaper New Hunan Daily News, were condemned as anti-rightists by the Communist Party and sent to the country for “reëducation” through labor. The family—Deng was one of eight children—suffered extreme deprivations, and Deng’s education ended after elementary school, though she later immersed herself in classics by Western writers. It was at the age of thirty, married and with a son, that Deng began to write. She was working as a tailor with her husband at the time; the couple had opened a shop after teaching themselves to make clothes_._ Her description of her writing process conjures the same sense of wonder that permeates her novels: “A strange thing happened,” she has said. “I found that when I was writing fiction, I didn’t need to work out plots or a structure or anything beforehand. No matter, a short piece or a long piece, it was the same. I just sat down and wrote without thinking.”
Deng, who is sixty-four, now lives with her husband in Beijing and writes every day. She has published dozens of short stories and novellas, several novels, and books of commentary on Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. So far, only eight of her books have been translated into English. Though written, or at least translated, using concrete, often simple language, they rarely rely on conventional storytelling or character studies. Still, certain thematic obsessions emerge; questions of vision and perception, for instance, come up often. In “Five Spice Street”—a hysterically funny novel in which the residents of a three-mile-long street endlessly gossip and speculate about the sex life and desires of a woman named Madam X—the main character performs “occult” experiments involving gazing into mirrors and microscopes, at one point claiming to have “retired” her sense of sight. The short story “Vertical Motion” is narrated by a race of “little critters” who have “neither eyes nor any olfactory sense” and who “live in the black earth beneath the desert,” tunnelling through the soil and sometimes communicating about the fate of a forebear who tunnelled too high and vanished into the landscape above.
Can Xue has likened her writing to the pioneering dance of the choreographer Isadora Duncan—a comparison that captures, in “frontier,” the fresh, unexpected ways in which one moment flows into the next. Now someone is slamming a grocery basket upside down, releasing a bunch of live frogs; now a young woman is encircled by a grove of dead poplars; now snow leopards are descending upon the market in Pebble Town from Snow Mountain. There is also a resplendent garden that grows “in the air”—full of “palms, banyans, and coconut trees, as well as some other unusual plants.” One never knows to whom this garden will appear, or when, or why. Nevertheless, its appearance brings pleasure and momentary enlightenment.
Can Xue takes pride in her total commitment to what some have described as “difficult” literature. “Everyone knows the experiment in fiction I have been conducting for over thirty years has been an experiment without an escape route,” she recently wrote, in “A Short Piece on Experimental Fiction.” I was reminded of this characteristic statement while reading “frontier,” in which one senses the rigorous forward motion of Can Xue’s technique forming her vision as the narrative develops. One of the most intriguing relationships in the book is between Liujin and a dark-skinned man from Africa who goes by the name of Ying and who works at the Design Institute. From one of their early encounters—a walk around the landscape by the Institute, during which they talk about subjects including snakes, Liujin’s mother, and “a rag-picker who’s been circling around this office building for more than ten years”—I sensed an affection in their often gnomic exchanges, a mutual fascination and tenderness. Ying’s connection to Africa ignites Liujin’s imagination; she is filled with “complicated feelings.” But Can Xue is soon dancing on to other characters, and when Liujin next encounters Ying, a few years have apparently passed. He looks “older and a little humpbacked,” and the two talk as reunited friends. The scene, like many others in “frontier,” unfolds in a strange and intimate way: Ying’s voice is “as soft and pleasant as before,” but his conversation feels abstracted. (“Ever since the old director died, work has turned into a hobby for everyone. This institute of ours hasn’t had a leader for a long time: it’s more a concept that’s leading us,” he says.) Ying appears again, briefly, near the end of the book, but none of the relationship’s ambiguity is resolved. By that point in the novel, any conventional resolution would have felt like a betrayal anyway. ____The open-endedness of “frontier,” its sprawling tapestry of intricately interconnected phenomena, becomes its own pleasure, which also feels like a surrender.