The best descriptor for Can Xue’s latest novel, The Last Lover, is that it is unlike, well, anything else. The Beijing-based author calls her fiction “soul literature.” It probably sounds audacious; it’s more audacious than it sounds. Nor does she shy away from what the term implies about the stakes of the numerous short stories and several novels she has published since the 1980s. Her “stereoscopic stories” are not just one more postmodernist innovation in narrative; the cognitive adjustment they require from readers, she says in a 2010 interview, is nothing short of an epistemological revolution: “Every reader of modernist literature,” if the reader is qualified, “must do what Copernicus did in his time, which is turn one’s direction of thinking around by looking for the structure of time and space in one’s soul when you are reading a work. Only in this way can you enter into the work and grasp the structure.” The turn made, however, is away rather than toward the truth-assessing standards of the scientific revolution, the self-verifying principles of rationality and scientific method, logic that “covers the deeper logic in the works and induces obstructions.” Like the narrating beastie of the title story in her 2011 collection Vertical Motion, she has found not just a new direction but a new dimension to move in, a realm where conscious beings experience space, time, and each other unbound from the old rules. Can Xue moves through this new world as guide; she offers it to the reader as an aesthetic event. Properly received, she says, her work opens readers up to affect and intuition. With this otherwise dormant aesthetic logic “activate[d],” each reader can “find the structure inside himself and facilitate the structure to be in an agreement with the work—gradually.” Such roles are perhaps not unusual for revolutionary writers. Gordon Teskey argues that John Milton’s work anticipated a new role for the poet as “shamanic” visionary, a channel for the spiritual in an increasingly “post-theological” society, and it would seem that Can Xue has taken up a similar function in an era become, as John McClure has called it, post-secular. The vocabulary of secular humanism and dogmatic religion alike prove inadequate in writerly attempts to say something about reality; the previous century saw the explosion of magic realist fiction, texts where daily life and the fantastic filter through each other. The continued development of a genre that steps away from straight realism seems not just likely but, paradoxically, necessary for effective artistic representations of the real and the human. The Last Lover, at once alien and familiar in its casual miracles, its people and things that blink in and out of solid existence, and its radical reconsideration of subjectivity, reads like an inaugural, or at least transformative, text. Call it magic virtual realism.
We are perhaps overdue for a literary approach to this new form of human experience. Most of us now live substantial portions of our lives within a cyber-sphere of kaleidoscoping stories, dialogue, and images. We waft in from all parts of the analog world to hold either infinitesimal or prolonged intercourse with people who appear, like us, out of nowhere; we friend them, fight them, not infrequently doubt their existence or aspects thereof. During the day, wherever we are present in body, many of us take every free moment to browse on phones, effectively stepping out; in the evenings we ignore our spouses to check our devices, to don other personas and perhaps foster curious intimacies and enmities with faraway usernames. We share moments of feeling we don’t understand, we slide into oblivion or obliviousness with a click. We have come perhaps closer than ever to something that resembles a dreamscape in sober waking life, a communal unconscious that is, improbably, woven tight with the world of technology, the allegedly objective scientific “real,” and all that the words evoke for us—our sacred secular narratives of rationality, progress, and the individual. The practical, commonsense experience of reality has become tenuous. With distilled reports beamed from half a planet away and made flat and unreal, frequently taken in via favored recreational devices and abandoned with a click or a button for more diverting content, the casual news consumer has regular use for the questions that theorist Tzvetan Todorov associates with readers of fantastic narratives: Did that really happen? Did I understand it right?
The Last Lover renders something like this new dimension of conflated physical and metaphysical experience, in all its volatility and, indeed, its frustration. It is arguably a singular accomplishment; most authorial comparisons will seem, to those who read the novel, laughably off. Can Xue perhaps sits best with other literary loners—Kafka and Calvino (she has written criticism on both), Borges; a more contemporary resemblance might be seen in the work of Nigeria novelist Ben Okri, whose Famished Road moves similarly through an existentially unstable, spirit-permeated landscape. The Last Lover’s non-sequitur conversations, muddled etiologies, and dissolving identities also recall Samuel Beckett’s Molloy trilogy:
“I think,” she directed her words to Reagan. “I think Martin is like my sister. Someday he will swim into the sea wearing your clothes . . . Mr. Reagan, have you noticed that everyone on the farm looks the same? Only people harboring the same thoughts come here.”
“There are two crows in the pockets of my hunting gear,” Martin shrugged, and began to whistle.
Rest assured that it makes only slightly more sense in context. Plenty will find this wearisome; scrupulous attempts to track character history or match problems and mysteries to logical resolutions won’t reward readers here. Conventional narrative promises are seldom delivered upon—if there’s a Chekhovian gun on the wall in the first act, it may be fired in the third, but it will probably (to take an example from The Last Lover) be fired into the leg of its mysterious owner by his cook, at the owner’s own never-explained behest, as he approaches his house across vast grasslands, riding a leopard. This ostentatious arrival is business as usual in the novel, and a flailing Joe says as much to the owner moments before witnessing it: “Whenever you grasp hold of some object, other objects all change into unreal things.” Apparent seconds later, after his interlocutor has somehow managed to transport himself far from the house for his self-arranged shooting, Joe finds that “the scene from a moment ago . . . dissolve[s] like a hallucination.” Scenes may be linked, but the transitions are as unapologetically discontinuous as a film montage, or a sudden browsing redirect from one webpage to another; the reader is no more privileged here than Joe himself.
The novel begins in a never-named city of a never-named but apparently Western country. The barely-named Joe is the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, though the point of view shifts around, flicking through characters who feel like variously shaded versions of one another. Their daily lives are almost parodically humdrum, with interspersed moments of lurid horror all the more striking for the fact that they sometimes seem intended to slip by on the first pass. The shocking, the absurd, and the luminous are set off by a scrupulously controlled style and diction, steady throughout Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s stark, resonant translation. This is what we have come to expect of Can Xue: an unwaveringly lucid, reasonable voice delivering fever dreams. Joe is a longtime manager at the Rose Clothing Company, though his real life is in the “kingdom of his stories” built from the books he reads during work hours. This reading has become a project “to reread all the novels and stories he’d ever read in his life, so that the stories would be connected together” in order to allow him, as if hyperlinked, to “simply pick up any book and move without interruption from one story to another,” and to blot out the “outer world.” When we meet him he has recently acquired the ability to “remain immersed in his stories” even while dealing with customers. The story kingdom has even attained a degree of spatial reality in the form of a treed square, across which wander the characters of Joe’s books, frequently kimono-clad Easterners, but also occasionally the “real” people that Joe knows; though he creates it as a retreat, it has the capacity to become a communal space where narratives intersect with readers, and isolated readers approach each other through narratives.
This power is ambivalent, however, given that it has also divided Joe from his wife Maria, moving them apart “little by little onto different paths,” though a “subtle communication”—never quite specified—persists between them. Like a reimagined Penelope, Maria presides faithfully over the house Joe often leaves on business, though the tapestries she weaves are not part of a ploy to fend off suitors but an end in themselves, sublime designs that repel and draw customers, one of whom says a tapestry “gave him a feeling ‘like dropping into an abyss’” but buys it anyway: “Evidently he wished to experience what is was like to drop into an abyss.” Later, when Joe embarks on an uncertain journey toward “ancient eastern” Country C—for which it is of course tempting to read China, though China is mentioned elsewhere in the novel by name—Maria’s weaving becomes a material telepathy between them where Joe’s travels register cryptically, though this read on his progress is muddled at best. Attended by two beloved and vaguely sinister African cats and her son and confidant Daniel—a kind of homebody Telemachus who, unbeknownst at first to Joe, has returned from boarding school to secretly live with a neighbor—Maria administers a domestic space that seems to constitute its own miraculous ecosystem. Roses bloom year-round in a garden tended daily by Daniel, the cats conduct enough electricity to give possibly dangerous shocks, and an awareness runs through the house as if through a living thing:
[Maria] was pleased with [Joe’s] frequently leaving home for a few days at a time [ . . . because of] a thirst for change. Every time Joe went away for a spell, the house grew clamorous, on the brink of something happening. For example, at this moment she heard the two cats in the backyard shrieking in a frenzy; a large flock of sparrows followed them onto the steps; and in the southern wind there was a cloth flapping with a pa pa sound. Even her tapestry loom downstairs began making a rhythmic noise.
Like Joe’s, her hobby has become so mesmerizing that she has recently cultivated a knack for stepping out metaphysically:
She was . . . often able to enter an unusually intense, approximately hallucinatory state. At first this state only occurred when she was weaving tapestries, but slowly things became more complex. In the past two years, she suspected she’d become like her husband, sinking into the snare of “mental journeys” while this son, her house, and her son Daniel accompanied her . . . Sometimes Maria was so frustrated by this feeling of unreality she wanted to scream. Sometimes, instead, she was extremely content.
As in Joe’s square, there is the possibility of communality here, with the present, corporeal living and also with entities whose provenance and being is less sure: ancestors come to scold and advise Maria. Like Joe’s, Maria’s personal world is pronouncedly ambivalent: private and public, controlled and overwhelming, social and isolating.
“Mental journeys,” half pilgrimage and half chase, have all the solidity of the novel’s actual removes, and easily become confused with or implicated in its many episodes of “real” travel. Space is disconcertingly passable in the novel’s physical world as well, and characters can slip—at times imperceptibly—between the “real” world and their various virtual ones. No one involved seems surprised or perturbed by this everyday spatial flux. Walking to work, Joe sees “an abyss open in the sidewalk ahead of him, and he walked toward it, thinking perhaps it would lead him into the web of the story he had recently constructed.” This particular capacity to pass through to other places by subterranean means repeats over and over in a novel full of mysterious digging, excavating, coring the permeable earth—at one point Lisa, the wife of Joe’s boss Vincent, tells her husband that she is “a drilling crew.” Easy enough to read these surface mutilations as attempts to access some kind of common underground, an unknown cavern where people can truly share consciousness, though it is not always successful: “Vincent, are you still excavating that gully?” Lisa teases. “There are more and more little fish, little shrimp.” There are also suggestions that perhaps a cultural solidarity or reclamation can be achieved through descents like this, as when migrant worker Ida, a perhaps Filipina employee of the southern rubber tree plantation run by Joe’s client Reagan, finds a way, with the help of a compatriot, to escape Reagan’s ambiguously predatory attentions:
The place where she wanted to return was her old home. In her imagination it was a vague shadow. Actually, she didn’t want to take a train there, either. She wanted to take a shortcut, and the shortcut was one of those dark holes in the bar that Jade had told her about.
One day, when music reverberated through the bar, Jade guided her into a dark hole . . . Ida’s feet slid, then she fell with Jade into a hole . . . Jade was not in the same hole as she, but in one next to her. When Ida called, she made a muddled echo, as if she were almost asleep. Surely Ida stood on the mud of her hometown. That softness could not be forgotten in a lifetime.
Place is, needless to say, uncertain as well; characters hail from a vast array of countries, real and fictional, evoked in terms that are, by turns, matter-of-fact and romantic. The East rears up again and again in the minds and experiences of inhabitants of Joe’s Country A, figured as both an unbridgeably far Other and an inextricable immanence, occupying the West and occupied by it. The former version works on Joe when he feels a pull toward the aestheticized East—”red palace walls and amber tiles”—but he also becomes gradually aware of the latter through his books, sensing that “the story he’d been reading, set in the East, and the West, where he was in person, were converging on each other to form a separate, alternative space.” As an idea and as a place, “East” is monolithic here but multiple elsewhere, differentiated into regions and countries, broken into individuals of varying depth. Against the depiction of Ida as an exploited laborer in some sort of colonized south—an ambivalent echo, perhaps, of gritty Marxist-minded realism—other Easterners stand at the fringes of The Last Lover, often veiled (occasionally literally as well) by what seems to be a pall of orientalist Easternness projected onto them by the central characters: they are inscrutable, passive, seductive. They remain, too, somehow only virtual, separate even in presence, as Joe discovers during an encounter with a captivating “white-haired Eastern woman” who appears across a dry river from him. Dressed in clothing “a bit like a kimono [and] a bit like the short dresses of ancient China,” she gives Joe the feeling that his “soul [is] spirited away from his body,” but he is told that she is, as it were, off the playable map:
“The person over on that side isn’t real.” The bookstore owner knit his brow, spitting out the sentence as if it hurt him.
“I had also sensed this. What a pity. Where is she from?”
“She is my former wife.” . . .
“Why isn’t she a real person?” Joe asked the bookstore owner, his voice revealing his tender thoughts.
“Because whichever way you go, you still can’t reach her.”
Joe defies this warning and manages a conversation, during which the woman tells him that his ethereal Korean business associate Kim “is not a real person,” but gives another explanation for her ex-husband’s similar account of her:
“Some people are an unsolvable mystery to other people. If he lives with that sort of person, he will gradually disappear. Have I answered your question? If you go to Ito’s bookstore late at night, you will hear him wrestling inside and the books falling from the shelves.” . . .
The owner of the bookshop was named Ito. Joe had never noticed this before. So he was Japanese? His wife, this woman before him, was Japanese? They came here from the distant East to start a business, then they separated? Human hearts are frightful.
The scene swerves suddenly from masque-like tableau into middle-class domestic drama, with Joe surprised at the Easternness that hides within his own unremarkable associates. The East-West gulf telescopes down into the gulf between marriage partners, the unavoidable gulf between two people—equally pedestrian, equally exotic experiences of an Other.
The marriage dyad emerges subtly over the course of the novel as a constant point of interest in Can Xue’s meditations. The move is an amusing one; it might be read as a send-up of realist preoccupation with the theme, from Austen to Franzen. Couples proliferate in The Last Lover, repeating, with differences, the incommensurabilities of Joe and Maria but like them suggesting, too, the possibility of numinous communion. Much has been made, in critical work, of Can Xue’s dissipation of the subject, a breaking-down of the individual often read as liberating. Certainly, identity often proves bizarrely interchangeable in this novel—Maria only recognizes a taxi driver as Joe at the end of the ride; the Eastern woman who tantalizes Vincent and Reagan is alternately “Arab,” “Chinese,” and male; Kim surfaces several times to live different lives, or perhaps there are simply several different people named Kim—but subjectivity seems not so much to fall apart as to be distributed differently. Pairs of what we might otherwise call individual subjects move it between them, like stars pulling mass from each other in a companion system. Thought and feeling do not always map neatly to bodies, which seem sometimes to have been left elsewhere, beside the point as they often are in virtual spaces. “People here don’t have bodily suffering,” a beautiful African street-sweeper—identical sister to a street-sweeper in City B—tells Vincent when he comes to the “gambling city” where Lisa’s parents live, parents he has hitherto believed dead, only to be told by his wife that they in fact were but apparently had a few more lives in store: “Even I have died many times . . . You’ll get used to this sort of thing.” Bodies are porous, ill-guarded—the teeming snakes of Reagan’s plantation do not just bite but slither in and out of the bodies of its inmates, and Reagan’s cook shrugs off her telepathic understanding of another farm worker: “In my hometown, there are many people like this . . . They absorb a few things from your body, and they pour a few things into your body.”
Nowhere is this slightly sinister dynamic more at work than between the spouses and other close partners of the novel: a volatile economy of affect circulates, sometimes salutary but also overwhelming, no guarantee of sympathy. Desire swells and ebbs, disembodied, through the text to create unions of bodies and separate them, a terrain of Deleuzian intensities. Two lovers on Reagan’s plantation follow Reagan into his room and blithely become amorous in front of him; the cook complains that “a new round of desire” must have risen in the house. Joe avoids Maria’s bedroom because he fears “the abyss of her desire,” though unaired desire outs in other intersubjective ways: a version of Kim later explains a terrible scream to Joe as the result of “sexual repression” among locals: “For a year already, everyone has suppressed their desire.” Private mental worlds allow seemingly estranged couples to make startling connections, proving that the boundary between minds is not insurmountable, though it is often too daunting to breach. Vincent’s understandings of Lisa come mediated through a fantasy of the alluring Chinese woman, inventing a mind that lies open to his in a way that Lisa’s, to his consternation, doesn’t: “Vincent imagined the Chinese woman telling him that he should visit the gambling city to figure out a few things about his wife, Lisa. The Chinese woman sat with her back to him. She hadn’t opened her mouth, but Vincent heard her thoughts. They came toward him as a language, and so he formed this statement from her present thought.” Meanwhile, Lisa is “a stoppered bottle” to him even after the visit, the two of them unresolvable into one flesh: “‘Lisa. Oh Lisa, how come I can’t understand even a little of what is in your heart?’ . . . Maybe she was born deep underground!” Moreover, partners are sometimes more inclined to step laterally, to connect affectively with friends rather than lovers—Maria with Daniel; Lisa with Maria, when the two share a nightly “long march” with a spectral Red Army, tugging Lisa away from Vincent: “[H]is wife could communicate with Maria, without their actually meeting. Everything was changing. Even this morning, he could no longer enjoy that strange territory with Lisa through the intercourse of their bodies.” The virtual space sustained between them blinks out.
Reviewers and critics will inevitably ask who the last lover is, and all interpretations will of course only be so many muddy bulwarks to be modified or ignored as the battle moves. Unto the breach, then: Held within the novel’s title seems to be a question that haunts every romance in a world—and an untold host of storytelling traditions as well—infatuated by the theory of the pair marriage bond. Valorized or sneered at, doubted or longed for, ontological or gloomily economic, the enactment of this two-into-one synthesis is what the stories we tell ourselves aim at, turn around, avoid. Permanent communion, intersubjectivity that is no longer intersubjectivity but a kind of dual subjectivity, life shared—we are born into narratives that organize our lives by this marker, the finding of the mate. Who, then, is your last lover? Can it truly be decided in advance? To pick a companion for life is to provide an answer to this question, however unwittingly, to brush consciously or unconsciously against the thought of one’s—utterly singular, as far as we know—death. Have we chosen our last chance at communion—need we have only one, and need it be a spouse? We ask it of each other—am I the last one?
It’s a question of bourgeois banality and cosmic moment. The thought seeps in at the end of the novel, during Maria’s and Lisa’s nocturnal search for their husbands through a phantasmal graveyard in a shared dream. Maria finds Lisa, who is introduced to the novel in a jealous panic over Vincent’s dalliance with the Eastern woman, sitting on Vincent’s grave, though he is not buried there: “‘Not yet, he is still roaming outside. I sit on top of the grave and my heart is at peace.’” The graveyard fills with neighbors, who seem to have to come to confirm their own lastness: “Casting her eyes into the distance, Maria saw them squatting one by one on the grave mounds, placing their lanterns on the tombstones. The graveyard seemed vast and limitless. Lisa said that each one squatted on the grave of his or her ‘beloved.’” Maria shies away from such a resolution, and is left the next night, with Joe still gone on his trip to Country C, with the sense of a tentative union, a kind of companionable neighboring:
She felt that Joe was nearby, sitting behind a book, beside a little stream. He had taken off his shoes and stretched his bare feet into the black water. Maria thought, Joe would not leave her again. How good. In the house built on the foundations made by her ancestors she, Daniel, and Joe, this family, were starting their own long march. They were going to bring back to life those long ago stories. This would be a fine thing! But she feared her husband’s body was forever disappearing from their home.
Does the introduction of the child compromise the lovers? Does the body slip perilously away, subordinated to imposed narratives of family? Maria seems to conclude that the “strange territory” of the physical can hold its own: “After so many years, she experienced for the first time the way blood kept relatives together.” Imagined, virtual, narrative worlds settle against the concrete and animal, finally, as Maria walks into the “forest” Joe has raised “over several decades of uninterrupted reading”: “In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness?” So we often ask ourselves, when we consider taking a last lover. Imposed, conventional narrative and unmoored feeling, unmoored being, are perhaps impossibly mixed in us—we take one for the other. We try futilely to sequence maelstroms of cause-effect that rise stereoscopic around us, to declare a first, a last.
If such a reading seems on its face disappointingly pedestrian for a novel shot through with the mystical and the sublime, it matches the equally commonplace enigma that it serves to probe. At the core of a spousal relationship lies that most ubiquitous and mysterious of binaries: the self-other divide. “A spouse or a lover is your mirror: you see yourself in them, but the two of you are independent,” Can Xue says in an interview with Wasmoen about the novel. “In a certain sense your understanding of him and his understanding of you is imperfect, very imperfect, and this is the inevitable result of your being two free beings. This is the perpetual contradiction of a free world. The lovers become mystified and each has the impulse to explore him or herself.” The possibility of a last lover propels us, dramatically, inward and outward at once, as if inward and outward are interchangeable. Do we want, ultimately, to dissolve or maintain our selves as bounded individuals? At a lower intensity level, our contemporary (virtual) reality exercises the same alternating tidal pulls on us, on the I and you that seem more arbitrary even as we become able to know and say more of ourselves and of each other. In the midst of these rip currents Can Xue gives us, to mix metaphors, a kind of homeopathic cure: a world of writing that gets close to our world of living, a real-unreal where self-other separate but can be said to neighbor each other rather than stand in simple opposition—where even in moments of distinction, the other, or the self, is felt to be near.
Nell Pach is is pursuing a Ph.D in English literature at the University of Chicago. She last wrote for Music and Literature about W.G. Sebald.
Banner image: Jeri Griffith, “Fire & Ice,” 22” x 30”, collage, from Spirit Guides. Used for the cover of Can Xue's 灵魂的城堡－理解卡夫卡 / The Castle of the Soul: Understanding Kafka (1999). Jeri Griffith is a visual artist who lives and works north of Boston. Her paintings, drawings, video, and sculpture can be seen at www.jerigriffith.com.