By Can Xue
Reviewed by J. Andrew Goodman
There is much pretense about Can Xue, the prodigious author who's published three novels, fifty novellas, one hundred and twenty short stories, and six book-length commentaries over the past thirty years. Several works have been translated into English, Frontier being the latest, published this March by Open Letter Books. It's a novel that defies expectations, and so I recommend reading without them.
Frontier is the nebulous portrait of a half-dozen people who have traveled to Pebble Town, a city on the frontier skirted by wastelands. There is no narrative arc. Rather, Can Xue suffuses each vignette with implication and tension. Through subtle repetition, patterns emerge in the text, but there is no direct conflict. And, while most of Pebble Town's people work for the town's design institute, its director is hardly a deity and there is seemingly no teleological allegory.
Much of Frontier's tension comes from the regular adjustments characters have to make. There are daily earthquakes and a tropical garden that appears and disappears depending on its viewer's enlightenment. The geography is constantly shifting and even dreams manifest into reality. Time is also fluid. Characters are often surrounded by invisible people of the past, not necessarily as ghosts, but as shadows or presences. The design institute director's friend, Haizai, says, "The dead are struggling for territory against the living." He works in Pebble Town's morgue and is an arbiter of sorts between the present and afterlife.
Frontier most closely follows Liujin, a "true child of the frontier." She is born in Pebble Town soon after her parents, Jose and Nancy, settle there, and she serves the novel's scope through two different timelines. In one, Liujin is in the present as an adult; in the other, she's a child and growing up through asynchronous stories told by other characters—her parents, her part-time caretaker Qiming, her friend Amy, or her potential lover Sherman—that revolve around her. Eventually the two timelines converge, though there is evidence they intermittently cross throughout the novel. Can Xue navigates gracefully through the major shifts in time. As a reader, I accepted the hard logic in the fluidity and tangibility of time and how her characters react to it.
There is also a beauty to the simplicity of Can Xue's (or the translation of her text at least) language. There is no luxurious prose of landscape; instead, she uses sparse words to describe the surroundings of Pebble Town, which works to its own great effect: there is an emphasis on the emptiness and on space to wander. One begins to feel claustrophobic in the small, dark spaces of the characters' dreams or in the fixation of the author's use of patterns. The world beyond Pebble Town seems boundless, but desolate. There are wastelands; the distant Snow Mountain is always in view and never as it seems; towards the interior, there's Smoke City; in another direction, the Gobi Desert. In all the frontier's expanse, "The sky was so high, and its color held no gentleness."
Without conflict, Frontier relies on much exposition. Can Xue develops her characters through their interactions with Liujin or other characters in her periphery. How each one comes by Liujin becomes the narrative for how they arrived or traveled to Pebble Town, revealing their pasts. Most people arrived in town as if compelled. Jose and Nancy traveled after reading an advertisement for a job available there. Others are past associates of the design institute director. All the characters share this compulsion and place they've chosen as their new home. Many never leave. The novel frequently compares its characters to the different fauna of the frontier, and the author remarks "[the birds'] gatherings are regulated by an indescribable impulse." Such are the people of Pebble Town.
Frontier is a difficult novel to unpack. The action arbitrarily stops, the dialogue is sparse and enigmatic, the novel is without a clear revelation, and moments frequently contradict one another. It's unsettling in many ways. However, Can Xue is masterful in her expression of feelings, how they physically manifest and how her characters wander and invite others into them. In spite of the small community and everyone's closeness, people are estranged from one another. In spite of people's settling in Pebble Town, they are still transient, aimless. These struggles are not often confronted, but accepted as matter of fact. Can Xue's characters are allowed the gamut of reactions to social anxiety and that anxiety is possibly the truest reflection in Frontier. In all its evocation, the novel truly expresses estrangement, between people and others, a person from their former self, or between reality and fiction. They converge in Pebble Town. The custodian of the design institute and one of Pebble Town's oldest citizens, Qiming, remarks, "That's how things are on the frontier—the intangible is tangible."