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 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