By N.P. Thompson
Northwest Asian Weekly
Novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo has a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor. This was evident in her previous book, “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers,” which revealed, in the form of a glossary, a fraught-with-misunderstandings romance between an untutored Chinese peasant girl, who comes to London to study languages, and the bisexual British aesthete whom she meets at the movies. Likewise, Guo’s feature debut as a director, the meta-comedy “How is Your Fish Today?” was a gentle satire about a Beijing hipster trying to succeed as a screenwriter, despite having none of his scripts make it past government censors.
In her second novel to be published in the West, “Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth,” Guo once again goes back to the cinema. Her 21-year-old heroine, Fenfang, has fled the rural life of Zhejiang province for the allure of the big city. Narrating in first person, Fenfang moves from one menial job to another, eventually cleaning floors at a rundown martial arts theater where she watches movies all day and sleeps on a broken sofa in the projection room.
“The best thing about my cinema sweeping job,” Fenfang tells us, “was meeting the assistant film director. I helped him find an umbrella he’d lost. He told me it had been a gift from his girlfriend when she’d moved to Shenzhen, after which he’d never seen her again. He seemed upset when he talked about her, but if a yellow umbrella had been her parting gift, then no wonder.”
Just like in the movies, Fenfang soon enough crosses the threshold to the silver screen, embarking on a less-than-lucrative career as an extra at Beijing Film Studios. Eternally saddled with bit roles such as “female number 300” in a grade-Z epic called “The Collective Wedding,” Fenfang replies to an admirer’s fan letter with, “I’m impressed that you managed to find my name in the list of 2,000 brides.”
That zanily off-centered wit extends even to Fenfang’s depicting the squalor of her surroundings, whether she’s comparing the aggressive cockroaches in her apartment to Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or wishing that her gossipy neighbors, with their “everlasting socialism,” would have “their few remaining teeth break on frozen bok choy.”
Yet you can glimpse certain haunted qualities amid Guo’s humor; the line her narrator quotes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” “Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?” gets at those nagging concerns we all have below the surface, and she quotes it near the beginning of a chapter wherein Fenfang’s neighbors have her arrested on suspicions of being a prostitute.
The harrowing episode of the girl’s detainment at a police station contains some of Guo’s most vividly etched observances, which are all the more affecting because they’re so casual. Among the “criminals” that Fenfang finds herself alongside, there’s a heartrending sketch of a “bleached-blond man from Guangdong without a Beijing permit … It was obvious the owner of the hair salon where he worked wasn’t going to turn up and bail him out. He started murmuring that he would just go back home … he would give up Beijing and go back to planting rice in the fields after getting out of here.” And there you have it — the dream of a better life abruptly ended.
Midway through, I wanted “Twenty Fragments” to coalesce into a sustained narrative. Guo has the chops to develop the basic premise further, yet the novel, true to its title and form, doesn’t go beyond a series of stop and start vignettes.
The comic tone becomes increasingly dour in the second half as Fenfang’s movie extra career – the entertaining heart of the book – recedes entirely. Nonetheless, Guo’s criticisms of contemporary China, matched with her offbeat insight into the contrariness of human nature (she has a shrewd paragraph on a hotel doorman who rehearses martial arts moves instead of opening the door), are spiked enough to hold our interest, even if the reader’s initial delight has yielded to frustration. ♦
N.P. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.