Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another world

Today's short fiction review:

"Blue Light in the Sky" and "The Bizarre Wooden Building," Can Xue (from Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories)
This book's presence in my collection is the result of shelf-surfing at the former 2nd Story Bookstore, now known as 2nd Story, the owner now "out of the book business" and doing well selling coffees, sandwiches and soups (and a few literary magazines). The story never carried much stock, but what they carried was interesting, not Barnes & Noble fare (and a few times I ordered books from them just to give them my business). This book would never have appeared on the racks at a giant chain.

Xue's stories connect with readers in a way Jung would appreciate: her worlds are dreamy (or actual dreams), slippery, uncertain, hostile. "Blue Light in the Sky" concerns a girl who cuts her foot, an event that leads her unpleasant older sister, who tells her she'll likely die of tetanus, to construct a plot to take the narrator's prized (and stolen?) set of woodblocks. What's dream and what's not is unclear for much of the story, and by the end this somehow works. The work clearly owes much to Kafka. "The Bizarre Wooden Building" is even more labyrinthine, with a less solid set of relationships and images that provide the creeping sense that the author is up to something even more parabolic or allegorical, though I'm at a loss to say more than that about the meaning. A man marvels at a very tall building made of horizontal wooden pieces; he goes upstairs to find a man, huddled in a quilt against the cold, seemingly expecting him. An arrogant boy shows up who challenges our narrator and presents a confounding view of how to interact with the man of the place: by merely thinking of stories from the outer world, which he collects on pieces of paper kept stuffed in his pockets. Our protagonist is finally chased from the place, and looking back from the street he finds the upper floors obscured by mist.

Xue's writing is simple and compelling, the stories unsettled and unsettling.

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