A palate-cleanser before the final Clarke Award re-read, this, Xiaolu Guo’s follow-up to last year’s Orange-shortlisted A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (except that the Chinese edition of 20 Fragments was her first novel; although this English translation has, apparently, been substantially revised). You could, if you wanted, run through a list of similarities between the two. Both are lively and interesting and worth reading. In both the subject matter — in 20 Fragments, a young woman moving from the Chinese countryside to Beijing and trying to bootstrap her way into a career in the film industry — feels more than a little autobiographical. The narrator is, in both cases, a young, determined, spirited woman, although 20 Fragments‘ Fenfang is nowhere near as emotionally naive or culturally adrift as Dictionary‘s Z. Fenfang’s voice recalls what we see of Z’s writing in her native tongue: direct, spare, oddly innocent. (It reminded me of Yiyun Li, though I have no idea whether the similarity is a coincidence or an artifact of translation from Chinese.) And both books are concerned with, among other things, the tension between community/constraint and individuality/loneliness.
But 20 Fragments examines that tension through a portrait of a place, rather than a love story, taking from the get-go an unsentimental, unromanticised look at Beijing. When Fenfang arrives in the city, the first apartment she moves into is one left vacant after she sees its owners mown down by a bus; her second home is next to a huge rubbish tip where children play in the summer. The sheer scale of Beijing is something Guo captures well, as is the daunting challenge that carving out a space and an identity in the face of such hugeness represents. The book’s structure, a series of vignettes, often deliberately banal, strung together very loosely, helps with this, as though the scale of the city overwhelms any hope of coherence — as one review put it, events are dictated “not by logic or structural unity but by a hotline to emotions”. And Fenfang’s reflections on the few occasions she ventures to other parts of China throw the city into perspective. She misses, for example, the “sharp edges” it brings to her life.
20 Fragments is also, as you would hope, a culturally enlightening book, although often as much for its presentation of the ways modern China is assimilating emblems of America — Tennessee Williams, McDonalds, Scorsese — as for its specifically Chinese observations. In some ways the deployment of Western cultural references recalls Victor Pelevin; but the larger point, perhaps, is made by an (American) friend of Fenfang, who says he likes China because China is better at being American than America. There’s a sense in which 20 Fragments is an exploration of what that might mean; you feel at times that Fenfeng’s hunger, and the hunger of others of her generation, is something driven by China’s economic rise and drives that rise in turn. A trip home is rendered unreal by the changes that modernity has brought — a TV that looks wrong in her parents’ house, pollution and litter in the nearby stream. What’s real for Fenfang is Beijing, majestically cruel and intense. She goes to Beijing University cafe, to get a free drink, and watches the college kids, and we watch with her. “You could really feel,” she reports, “that, in the future, these kids were going to be running the world.”