Xiaolu Guo’s Lovers in the Age of Indifference is like a set of picture postcards. Mostly, short pieces. Most or all of the pieces could leave the unprepared or traditional reader at sea as they do not fall easily into the category of story. There is, often, no particular crisis nor any spectacular resolution. Look at it either as a series of sketches or as superb samples of the author’s talent with various genres.
The Mountain Keeper, the first story in this collection, is narrated in elegant strokes. It is almost like reading a typical Chinese painting.
Winter Worm Summer Weed is another little portrait. This one brings life to and colours an arid region and arid lives with a bold and refreshing indifference.
Beijing's Slowest Elevator toys with the life of a woman who works at a karaoke bar. She could be a prostitute of sorts but, to us, she emerges as one of the teeming masses of China’s capital city. A longer creation, this story is divided into ten parts and each can stand on its own.
Lovers In The Age Of Indifference is bizarre and tender and faintly and deliciously creepy. I wonder if the author plans to expand on some of these pieces.
Junk Mail has left me scratching my head. Perhaps I’ve skimmed through too fast? Is this the gift of fame, that, once published, the publisher will accept all your scrawls? But that is unworthy of me. I also wonder how many have woven a tale out of the treasure trove we call “spam”.
Then The Game Begins returns us to lovers. Mah Jong forming the centrepiece, this sketch is delicately salacious and redolent with artful indifference.
Stateless, also, I confess, left me clueless. How is the protagonist? White or yellow or black or brown? Who is the girl? What is the story? It’s highly titillating and leaves you high and dry. I would have to read more of Xiaolu to understand this art of being such a tease!
An Internet Baby is hilariously tragic. It will pander to the preconceptions we are trained to have about China. It will feed and satiate that perception, while, I’m sure, the author smirks and snickers behind the curtains, content with our complacency.
The Dead Can Dance Heartbreak is a theme of several pieces in this collection and this one is a gem. Unforgivingly blunt, it captures the agony of rejection. It’s bound to strike a chord with habitual lovers. There is nothing quite as bleak as the end of love.
Beijing Morning Star The chief editor of a daily re-works a few pieces. Tongue very much in cheek, Xiaolu Guo crafts a universal piece. I dare anyone anywhere in the world to say “This is typical of China”!
Not all the stories adhere to the format of sketches. Into The World can earn anyone’s approval as a story. And what a story! Just as I appreciate Japanese authors all the more for being addicted to Japanese dramas, I do feel that I’m able to relish Xiaolu Guo so much the more thanks to having watched quite a few Chinese films in the past. I can’t think of any other people with such a predilection for irreverence. Confucianism and communism both conspired to create this outrageous brand of extreme and slapstick reality. Let me disabuse you, though: it’s an artful piece and very much in a traditional Chinese story mode.
Address Unknown Another in the heartbreak genre, this one reminds me of Jacques Prévert’s cruel Déjeuner du Matin. Those who have loved and lost have surely undergone this phase. There is, probably, nothing worse than the silence of a partner. The silence of death. The death of love.
A series of text messages, The Third Tree also uses the habit of the lover who cannot accept rejection, who still hopes into the deathly silence, who persists. It’s yet another instance where the author plays with formats. Now why can’t I try that! Why didn’t I think of it first!
Another libidinous story, Anywhere I Lay My Head, indulges in a voyeuristic foray, tracing a day in the life of a woman as she leaves her partner for a tryst with an ex-lover. Her duplicity, like a cruel crust, remains unnoticed. Framed within mundane happenings, this faithlessness becomes more poignant than heartbreak.
Letters To A City Of Illusion And Hope is composed, as you’ve rightly guessed, of a few letters between partners. It’s left me wanting to read or, at least, read about, Griffin and Sabine. And it has revealed how widely read Xiaolu Guo surely is.
Today I Decide To Die One way we react to a breakup is suicide. This is, again, a tale of rejection, set amidst descriptive chatter.
I confess that I am yet to broach Flower Of Solitude. At a glance, I can tell that it is carved in the mould of Chinese legends and myths. I’m saving it for tonight.
This is not for the unadventurous nor the untrained, perhaps. Short stories are regarded as chocolate boxes, a whole made up of nibbles. Lovers in the Age of Indifference, though formed of bites, cold shoulders such an approach.
An absolute must for all wannabe writers. And everyone else!
I leave you with a video of Xiaolu Guo reading some poetry: