I Live in the Slums, by Can Xue

translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Yale University Press, 2020

Publisher’s Blurb

Longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. A major new collection of stories by one of the most exciting and creative voices in contemporary Chinese literature

Can Xue’s stories observe no obvious conventions of plot or characterization. That is the only rule they follow. Instead, they tend to limn a disordered and poetic state given structure by philosophical wonder and emotional rigor.

Combining elements of both Chinese materiality—the love of physical things—and Western abstract thinking, Can Xue invites her readers into an immersive landscape that blends empirical fact and illusion, mixes the physical and spiritual, and probes the space between consciousness and oblivion. She brings us to a place that is both readily familiar yet unmappable and can make us hyperaware of the inherent unreliability in our relationship to the world around us. Delightful, enchanting, and filled with secrets, Can Xue’s newest collection shines a light on the forces that give contours to the visible terrain we acknowledge as reality.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Stella Jiayue Zhu, 20/9/21

When surrealism emerged in the 1920s, its French pioneers invented a game called the Exquisite Corpse, which begins with the first player writing down a phrase and folding the piece of paper to partially conceal their writing. The paper is then passed around for everyone to add something, in turn, to complete a sentence. The game derives its name from, purportedly, the first sentence that came to be from this exercise: Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau. (The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.)

I do not know if Can Xue has heard of or played this game, but she is clearly no stranger to the principle of the matter. In her interview with Asymptote, the author reveals that she writes from a place of ‘total creativity amid a divided consciousness’. Everyday she commits a paragraph to paper, always ‘sequentially, from beginning to end’. She never rearranges. She never edits.

It’s a remarkable and remarkably unusual process, though not quite unexpected once we take in the kind of stories Can Xue writes. I Live in the Slums, her phantasmagorical collection of short stories translated by Gernant and Chen, exudes an affinity to absurdist sensibilities, manifest by the stories’ blatant disregard for ordinary notions of continuity in narrative and spacetime, their adamant refusal to fulfill any expectation for rational explanation and resolution, and a startling, Baudelairean fascination with grotesque physicality.

This preoccupation with unfathomable sights—with the sick and deformed, the dying and rotten—comes through most clearly in the infernal visions of “Story of the Slums”, the titular novella about a rat-like, shapeshifting narrator’s strange, gory encounter with abominable creatures populating the plagued, waste-ridden slums.

There isn’t a singular plot as much as an overarching theme of incomplete metamorphosis, reprised over and over through Can Xue’s powerful, unrelenting depiction of hybrid beings stuck with sick, confused bodies, bleeding, dying, and happily thriving all at once. Here is an eye wrapped in membrane concealed in an abdominal cavity; there is a bamboo stick, dripping with blood, jumping twice, and becoming an alive, succulent thing.

Scene after scene, Can Xue inspires feelings of repulsion and fascination as she taps into a primitive anxiety at the core of our subconsciousness, exploiting our unease with things that defy categorization and knowledge. Is this piece of flesh man or animal, living or dead, the interior or the exterior? In “Story of the Slums”, the right answer is more likely than not: both. I cannot think of anything more terrifying and enigmatic than that. To quote Yeats, what we have at hand is “a terrible beauty”. And just like the Republic’s Leontius, we cannot look away.

This paradoxical co-mingling of incompatibles persists through the ensuing stories, none of which are as long or featuring as much explicit visual perversity, but they are comparable in mystery: abundant with strange, capricious characters, oracular dialogues, sudden, inexplicable desires, disorienting landscapes, and dream-like, hallucinatory events.

While each story stands alone, a few themes make repeated appearances: the outcast migrant type driven from home (the rat-like creature in “Story of the Slums”, the married magpie in “Our Human Neighbors”, and the tailed-man in “Shadow People”), the exclusionary contrast between we and they (“Shadow People”, “The Outsiders”, “Catfish Pit”), the vague, unfulfillable yearning for a better place faraway (“Catfish Pit”, “Lu-er’s Worries”, “Venus”), just to name a few. The reiteration is never tedious; Can Xue’s writing always overflows with creativity and thrill. So, when collected, these stories inform each other to allow the emergence of a larger theme, where the author’s fixation on questions of identity, loss, and yearning become puzzle pieces fitting within a singular frame.

Can Xue has said in interviews that all her books are autobiographical. As I understand, it is as much an admission to drawing from personal history as an instruction to experience and interpret her works as the unadulterated, subjective vision of an auteur.

I Live in the Slums is a very challenging book. The stories’ experimental forms and uneasy imageries can prove intimidating to the unprepared. That said, as one such relatively unprepared reader, it is clear from the get-go that I am in extremely good hands: it is not hard to recognize sheer literary prowess when you see it. And thanks to the care and attention with which Gerant and Chen handled the translation, the intensity and shock of the source text is not lost. In “Story of the Slums”, the rat-like narrator says about the slums, “I know all kinds of secrets here, but I don’t understand the mysteries of these secrets. On the outside, these secrets look beautiful but terrifying.” It then proceeds to ask itself, “Is this why I’m always eager to poke around?”

With some minor twists, the same may be said about the book: it contains many secrets that may not be understood, at least immediately, but be patient and let it draw you in; here lies an extraordinary vision, a rich mine for serious investigation.

Reviewed by Stella Jiayue Zhu

Reviewed by Stephanie Boote, 15/4/21

Can Xue’s short stories evoke a world of displacement, poverty and disconnection. Showcased in this collection together these separate tales come together to create a surreal environment. Sometimes dangerous and often often upsetting to read, they nonetheless captured me as a reader and challenged my desire to pin down a straightforward narrative. These stories would appeal to those seeking Kafka-esque tales of painful transformation and surreal environments.

The first story and titular piece “I Live in the Slums” was the hardest for me to personally read, but I do think nonetheless an excellent starting place. The tone of these stories is dark and surreal, this story establishes that quite brutally. The narrator is often as confused as the reader, without a clear sense of self or of home, and then is thrown through nightmarish environments which cause them great pain. They don’t understand the motivations of the characters they interact with and are left with only vague conclusions about how to continue in this way. They question where they came from and feel a deep sense of confusion and nostalgia for their ancestral home. I spent most of this story trying to figure out what kind of animal the narrator even was, although the humans called them a rat,  the tone of the piece left me wondering if that was just a cruel nickname. I also spent a lot of the rest of this story wincing at the pain inflicted on them and the horrifying sights they witness. It’s not an easy first read, but in the context of the rest of the collection it establishes the clearest sense of place and tone in the slums.

The slums are seemingly limitless, expanding or retracting based on the narrator’s perspective. To the Willow Tree, the slum is only as wide as the garden its planted in, emphasising how trapped it is. Whereas the first story showcases a seemingly limitless rat run. Importantly, there is an emphasis on verticality in these stories, these slums are tied into modern urban architecture. Characters descend into underground tunnels which feel oppressive and dank, but there is also ascension into tower blocks. Particularly when Ms. Wen in “Euphoria”, who we can assume is suffering from dementia, explores the many floors of her building, seemingly transforming at her will. One of the more palatable stories, due to Ms. Wen’s general optimism, it shows the displacement and disconnection with the earth and the outside while making the building her entire universe. These stories are packed with people who live on top of each other, but don’t seem to understand each other. The uneasy cohabitation between humans and animals is a frequent issue, in “Our Human Neighbors” the Magpies don’t understand humans at all, and yet they are drawn to them. The Cicadas of “The Old Cicadaare described as having a harmonious relationship with the trees and birds but are a nuisance to the people. Conversely, in “I Am a Willow Tree” plants freely describe their appreciation of a gardener, despite being improperly cared for. The disconnection only isolates the narrators and often emphasises their suffering.

Something which I noticed but found difficult to read is the difference between how Can Xue portrays the suffering of people compared to that of animals and plants. Humans suffer from psychological torment, they don’t understand one another and surreal situations arise from this difficulty.

A story which particularly stuck with me is “Sin” where a father dies and leaves behind a locked wooden box with no key, seemingly only for the purpose of tormenting his daughter. It is clear that something is inside the box but the mystery of what it could be as well as the father’s past drives Rumei to increasing mental distress until she wishes it was gone. Her cousins insistence that the there is some sin in the house also drives them all to feel unease and shame. The family is divided and suffering over the mystery of the box, but it is psychological torment. As uneasy this story is, there is little actual physical pain, unlike the stories concerning animals.

The way that the natural world is shown to suffer was far more difficult for me to read. Animals and trees suffer bodily hurt and feel immense pain. Can Xue describes the agony of the Willow Tree in visceral detail as it tries to grow in inadequate soil with barely enough water to carry on, to the point where continuing to live is somewhat horrifying. The rat of the first chapter is beaten and attacked, and the pain is translated into the surreal, nightmarish scenes of the underground tunnels.  Can Xue’s writing argues that the process of transformation in the natural world is harrowing, that transplantation and change comes with a painful cost. It can be interpreted as a powerful message of environmental harm and it’s unsettling to read.

Can Xue’s writing stays with you, and I think this an excellent translation. I personally prefer when the rhythm of Chinese sentence structure remains despite translation, so this particularly appealed to me. Nonetheless, I found it a challenging read and wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the faint of heart.

Reviewed by Stephanie Boote