Can Xue, Five Spice Street (Yale University Press, 2009)
The Chinese storyteller Can Xue (“Dirty Snow”) has written many justly celebrated stories about magic mountains, disappearing shoes, perceptive cats and dead uncles, but in Five Spice Street, her first novel to be translated into English, she has written a social novel about a street that survives on daydreams. Among the citizens who narrate the story—not in chapter-sized turns à la Faulkner, but in a first-person plurality that tends toward digression and contradiction—the most vocal include a lame woman who sits housebound; an old widow “so old she looked like dried bamboo;” the philandering Mr. Q; the venerable succubus Old Woman Jin; and a hapless “writer” more often referred to by his neighbors as “the stenographer.” Though few of these community pillars are, at least at first, articulated beyond their occupations (and some even less; one unfortunate correspondent is known throughout as “the forty-eight-year-old-friend”) we come to know each, their distinct voice and foibles, via their pursuit of the strange newcomer who represents both an eccentric menace to the community and its “spiritual sustenance.” This “skilled sorceress” is the peanut vendor Madame X.
Madame X—this person who is both corporeal and non-existent—has left our history numerous riddles. It seems that one can’t reach a conclusion about any of her activities through logic and reason, because this person is an assumption that might not be true—like a tree with massive foliage but shaky roots which will fall to the ground if it is lightly pushed. The only true existence is the illusion, the foggy mist that aroused our enormous interest.
They say she lives in a house filled with mirrors, where the government has been known to investigate supposed occult experiments—her so-called “dispel-boredom” activities—conducted with the local youth. Her neighbors whisper that Madame X has the power to fly, that she can “split herself in two,” that her mirrors help her harness the “saffron light waves” with which she beguiles her victims, that she sees all that transpires on Five Spice Street, though not with her eyes (indeed, she may be blind; she says her “eyes have retired”). Even her age is subject to speculation. Her alleged younger sister maintains that she’s twenty-eight or twenty-nine; a friend of Madame X’s husband claims to have learned from her ID card that she’s thirty-five. The husband himself says his wife is a very normal woman—but it’s well known that his only passion is for hopscotch, which he pursues oblivious to X’s infidelity with Q, whose physical appearance is as questionable as his lover’s age (the prevailing rumor is that he is “handsome”).
Like the “volatile and unpredictable” Madame X, Can Xue is “fascinated by the aftertaste of real things,” so she tells us nearly nothing directly, allowing her central character to emerge, piecemeal and ambiguous, from the fertile imaginations of her gallery of disciples and detractors. This is not to say that Madame X’s “provocative sexual power” and “supernatural ability” are purely the invention of Five Spice Street’s busybodied denizens. Take for example her “nighttime occupation,” rumored to be the manufacture of dynamite or breeding of scorpions. Breaking into her house one night, Madame X’s archenemy, the widow with the soft little black hat, reports that she found her “skipping naked back and forth in front of the mirror like a little child.” (She swears, for her part, that X is fifty.)
What the people of Five Spice Street object to overall is not Madame X’s individuality, but her resistance to proximity. By maintaining her indifference to the constrictive standards and restless gossip of the crowd, she becomes the axis of a novel that transitions from private magic to public realism, until it becomes a sustained riff on the reciprocal nature of identity. Just as Madame X is consistently transfigured by the whims and rumors that inform Five Spice Street, so too do her neighbors develop primarily by virtue of their adjacency to this “spotted mosquito” who is variously a “trouble-making demon,” and “an alien from outer space.” Distinct episodes do eventually develop out of civic hearsay and X’s erotic “spare-time recreation.” Desperate to have witnessed a rumored incident when X frolicked nude by the riverside, the residents of Five Spice Street stage a massive reenactment that becomes a three-mile “avant-garde” orgy. Having trailed X and Q to a warehouse rendezvous, the community appoints three scholars to deliver treatises as to which of the pair made the first move. Seldom is any objective account of X allowed to proceed very far before the voice of the collective intrudes in snippets of quotation that tend to choke off the end of sentences. Or else the widow, that champion of rationality, strides onstage like Graham Chapman to chastise a fascination gone too far in its adulation of a deviant outsider. (“In this perfectly mature society of ours, behavior is governed by iron discipline,” she remarks at one point. Call the widow a fascistic avatar of pure realism, a snub of all authors whose primary mode is play.)
If characters named X and Q cavorting geometrically to the tune of a dozen or so observers reminds some readers of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Nouveau Roman, it’s not for nothing. But Can Xue’s interest is, at least in this book, profoundly rooted in humanity, in the stories that develop between misunderstanding, adjacency, and one consciousness’s incomplete impression of “the other” (a more exhaustive list of books Five Spice Street does not resemble might include One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Virgin Suicides, and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery).
“Traditional styles wouldn’t work: we had to innovate.” Madame X wears many names in the course of the story, including “Lady Mirror” and “she who is everything,” but her true identity is the novel, the novelist, the point in the development of an art form when new language and untraditional approaches become necessary to communicate the motivating action of a society (any society, since Five Spice Street remains a street without a country) that mistakes innovation for aberration. X delineates that uncertain entity that survives only by way of her incarnation in the stories we tell (though they may muddle or even outright misrepresent their models) and in the telling learn whereof reality is made. “Reality,” Can Xue writes:
was reflected dramatically in our land. Fluky nature was tamed by the rule of our thought. This new world was fascinating. Here, the vines and trees that grew madly all year long, the birds that sang crankily, the ocean with its grand waves, the waterfalls that roared incessantly: behind all of this, the vital and everlasting light was shining. This world was the original source of poetry and the eternal theme of art.
J.W. MCCORMACKs work has appeared in Bookforum, the New Inquiry, Tin House, N1FR, Publishers Weekly, and Conjunctions, where he is a senior editor. He currently teaches at Columbia University.