Multiply, cascade, explode: A theory of literary fiction

Mutually voyeuristic shower stall overlooking pool in a public bathhouse in Wuhan, China

1. Texture

Let’s take Franz Kafka as a starting point for doing literary analysis. Kafka attracts interest for a host of qualities: the originality of his macabre vision, his premonitions of totalitarian state bureaucracy, his inimitable dreamlike style. These qualities combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. What other author of so modest an oeuvre—unfinished drafts of three novels published posthumously (against his wishes), a novella and a score of short stories—can approach Kafka’s universal appeal? I would add another quality contributing to his compulsive readability: the seamlessness of his narratives. Break off a snippet of his writing at almost any point and you are left with the most intriguing material, as if discovering a fragment of some long-lost ancient manuscript, leaving you eager to find the rest.


Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope

“About four or five thousand years ago, numerous tribes began mobilizing in the Yellow and Yangtze river basins…” begins this chapter from volume one of the national junior high school history textbook.

The name “China” straddles two different entities, Zhongguo (中國), the Chinese state, and Zhonghua (中華), the Chinese nation. The state, i.e., the Chinese Mainland, consists of one dominant ethnic group, the Han, and 55 or so officially designated non-Han ethnicities or “Minority Nationalities.” The nation refers solely to the Han Nationality. A huge diaspora of Han Chinese live outside the borders of the Mainland, with some 50 million in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and perhaps another 50 million in other countries around the world. The Mainland government secures the most legitimacy when these two concepts of “China” are confused and conflated in the public mind. To most Mainland Han Chinese, the terms Zhongguo and Zhonghua together constitute a “Greater China.” Not all in the diaspora identify with the Mainland government, of course; many are hostile to it. Within the Mainland itself, not to mention Hong Kong and Macao, there are divisive fault lines: nationalists who support the government, nationalists who don’t, and people who are averse to nationalism and jingoism altogether, who while they may love their country don’t much care about politics.

But what most Chinese of whatever political persuasion agree upon is the figure used to mark the extent of their lineage: “5,000 years of civilization” and “5,000 years of history.” It’s the most repeated phrase you’ll hear the Chinese use to describe their country. The notion of ancient civilization in the Chinese mind is inseparable from China itself. Thus a statement once leaped out at me from a Mainland publication in an otherwise informative article on recent archeological finds:

A modest proposal regarding sex work: Why all sex should be paid for

“Split second rippling for an instant” (“刹那摇滚涟倏”) by Xiao Dayuan (萧大原). What you’re looking at is indeed what you think it is. Those disturbed by this image or graphic depictions of sex in general need not read the following essay.

Maizidian, the old “wheat sellers” street in Beijing. This neighborhood near the embassy district hosts the largest concentration of massage parlors within the city, both good and bad (many more such establishments can be found in the suburbs). The main locale of German businesses, it’s known to foreigners as Germantown; the Japanese are also active in the area. One of the more popular restaurants in Maizidian is Baoyuan Dumplings. It fills up fast during the lunch hour, though you can reserve one of their private dining rooms, as personnel often do from the American Embassy a short taxi ride away. The dumplings are succulent but their unique attraction is your choice of orange, green, or purple wrappings—the dough infused respectively with the juice of carrots, spinach or red cabbage. Like the colorful food, the waitresses change into a different folksy costume each day. Their cheerfulness and low turnover bespeaks good management. The owner plays cards with friends at a table out front on the sidewalk when the weather is warm. Since I order the same thing every time and the waitresses know me, I need merely sit down at my favorite table and am soon served.

A Shakespeare sex-and-violence starter kit

“Civitas Londini” panorama of 1600 by John Norden, Southwark section. The Swan theater is visible on the left, the Beargarden, Rose and Globe theaters on the right (with permission of the National Library of Sweden).

London’s entertainment district in Shakespeare’s time was to be found in the suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, a bohemian enclave burgeoning with artists, poets, dramatists, craftsmen, migrants from the countryside and abroad, foreign agents and spies, and pretty much everyone kept or spat out of the city limits and its stringently regulated daily ordinances. The numerous inns and bawdy houses on Bankside in Southwark were more than willing to accommodate them, but the suburb’s main attraction was of course the theaters for plays and animal baiting. These were open-roofed amphitheaters for daytime use, nighttime illumination using candles or oil lamps being unfeasible for wooden thatched-roof firetraps packing in several thousand spectators.

Another reason favoring daytime performance was that the suburb turned into a scary place at night. In the face of minimal constabulary and little accountability, an inordinately high criminal element came out of the woodwork. If you look closely at the Southwark section of John Norden’s Civitas Londini (dated 1600), the era’s most topographically reliable map (despite the skewed perspectives of individual buildings), you can just see in the lower right-hand corner the top of the Globe theater jutting out of the trees; the Rose theater is more clearly visible a hop, skip and a jump the northwest. That Southwark was shrouded in tree cover is likewise confirmed by a sergeant-in-law at the time, one William Fleetwood, who described the area at night as “so dark and obscured by trees that a man needed ‘cat’s eyes’ to see.” I suppose it would have been like finding yourself in an American inner-city ghetto during a power outage with no streetlights, while gangs operated freely under tree cover thick enough to block out the moon. Southwark swarmed with all manner of cutpurses, cutthroats, cony-catchers, ravishers, and the growing ranks of the unemployed. To put some perspective on the crime rate, your chances of being murdered in London 400 years ago has been estimated at anywhere from ten to fifty times greater than your chances of being murdered there today.

On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China

B0009I8PWS.08.LZZZZZZZHit your pause button for the day, slow down, clear your head. Splurge on a bottle of good Bordeaux and listen to some music to match, like the opening track of the recording pictured at right, master harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012) playing a pavan in A minor by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (ca. 1543-1623). I could have come up with countless other examples of music as beautiful as this, but there is no music more beautiful than this. Now, let me reiterate that I am not singling out this particular piece by Byrd as the greatest thing ever composed; only that like any music of the top caliber, of which it is but a mere instance, there is a concentration of talent and energy resulting in a perfectly realized, diamond-like creation that cannot be improved upon in any way.

“How do you know this?” I am typically asked.

Music appreciation is a highly subjective affair, and we all of course have our favorites. You simply have to trust that I speak from long acquaintance with Western classical music, and with that comes a refined and discriminating faculty.

Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen

Elusive and enigmatic, the Japanese konyoku onsen, or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status—somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn—not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about naked onsens is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide. I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive, yet it’s still an esoteric topic for most natives. Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsens which allow it yet don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsens that let guests set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you have to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn—there may not be other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in one of the world’s most developed countries.

The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks

Like street-side Parisian cafes, the Starbucks pictured above at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, with its long counter and individual stools, is designed for people watching (courtesy of Yoshikazu Takada)

Apart from obvious differences in the size and layout of individual shops, all Starbucks are basically the same. On the surface this appears to be the case in China and Japan as well: the signature coffee-toned decor, the blond-wood furniture, the usual line of mugs, thermoses and other souvenirs, though Japanese Starbucks offers a wider array of coffee-making devices. Some shops come with national or ethnic flavors. The Beijing Starbucks that opened across from People’s University in 1998 (one of the earliest Starbucks in China) featured Ming Dynasty-style hardwood furniture, until the busy branch was shuttered without explanation ten years later, as often happens in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of Chinese businesses. Local architects are designing some stunning new Starbucks in both China and Japan. These differences are mostly top-down, dictated from the corporate leadership.

All Starbucks baristas are trained of course in the same professional routines. They are cut from the same cookie-cutter mold and delightfully anger-proof against the most obnoxious customers (of which the US probably exhibits the largest share). Like American baristas, Chinese baristas are polite in a down-to-earth way; one is hardly aware of being in a different country. As they are required to speak some English, they are typically college-educated, unlike the usual young migrants from the countryside employed in the service industry. Still, the Starbucks worker I had a fling with back in 2004 told me they only paid her eight Yuan per hour ($1 at the then exchange rate), before she got fired for accidentally damaging the espresso machine. They are paid more now, though only proportionately so. (How do you come on to an attractive Chinese barista? She sashayed right up to my table and brushed her hip against me. I got lucky; it hasn’t happened again.)