Review of Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas by Can Xue

A rare scatological mosaic elevated to the highest levels of artistic expression. Can Xue is my favorite contender for the Nobel Prize. 

Rising out of humble beginnings in China to become in the space of a decade, a force to be reckoned with in world literature. A titan of disjointed, haunting, sloppy elegance. A feverish, hyperactive geezer with a child’s imagination. She has published some 50 novellas, a few dozen stories and about 9 novels so far. They all partake of the same excruciatingly visceral style. The critics love comparing it to this or that author, like Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Cortazar and others, but she is entirely in her own league in my opinion.

Yellow Mud Street, the first novella in the collection, is a revolting, beautiful, contradictory summation of life in the ditch. A recounting of a fabulous town sinking into a pit of its own excrement. The bats and the centipedes, and the people and pigs, all leaking and spewing into each other, the roofs collapsing, and the hungry, sad animals beneath them called human beings, crumbling and festering in their own resentful sties. Can Xue conjures a continual excrescence of polyp-sprouting images. The characters and lunatics she peoples this scourged landscape with are hideous, Goya-esque renditions of nightmare beings, hovering between life and death and love and salvation.

So why is Can Xue doing all this? Why does she fly in the face of convention and challenge the notion of enjoyable reading and the status quo? Each moment, each gory detail, each unimaginable horror taking place is the even-toned, straight-faced, loving joke of an activist. She uses our fears and aggravations to build a castle of images, colors and flavors. Whether the Chinese government reads it or American students or Argentine professors, there is something to be gained from her intense vision. You can draw parallels to the questionable bureaucracies that spawned the human suffering she depicts in exaggerated detail. Beneath the hyperbole lie wounds of truth and blisters of history. You can find in the hairy horrors and pus-dripping walls, the squealing prostitutes and puddles bubbling with frogs, a cause and a purpose. She sees human beings as dependent creatures. Communities, when built upon mud, can only foster mud creatures. Yet in death and decay there is often found a germ of life and a sick kind of natural beauty. Can Xue excoriates our taste, and abrades our minds. She is the loving dictator of the lost hells of impoverished villages, where patches of our worst habits lurked and corrupted our ancestors.

Old Floating Cloud, the second novella, is a subtler, pointillist display of her powers. She weaves a tapestry of symbols to convey brilliant satires and memorable dreams. Plot and character development are not her main concern. The roles of family and community, the emotion and trauma we compile in our daily, animalistic existences, are her bread and butter. We are walking contradictions, all of us, and what we love, often destroys us. Our adornments are all sequins, and our blemishes are our defining characteristics. While this story is far more readable, far easier to digest, it is not as powerful as Yellow Mud Street. The sheer accumulation of her images, and the Jenga tower of her atmospheric malaise are impressive to a startling degree. Even more than her other short story collections, these two exemplar works are enough to prove to anyone that she is not afraid to expose and explode our literary refinements and the sealed bags of cultural baggage we all lug upon our shoulders like severed heads.

Can Xue may be overlooked by some now, but in the future, I think, her great artistry will continue to grow in influence.