Saturday, November 1, 2008

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

by Xiaolu Guo
Reviewed by Melissa

Fenfang Wang has dreams about being something more. Which is difficult when you're the daughter of a sweet potato farmer in the Chinese country. So, she heads for the big city--Beijing--to make her fortune. What she finds when she gets there, however, is not at all what she expected. After trying to make it with dead-end jobs, she lands a role as an extra in a film, and finds... more dead-end work. She also falls into two relationships with less-than-desirable men (one of them an American PhD student), while trying to figure out her life in Beijing. It's only through the support of her close friend, Huizi, that she realizes her true talent, and her ticket out of the dead-ends.

I'm not quite sure what to say about this book. On the one hand, I found it an interesting portrait of modern China. Most of my exposure to China through literature has been either set in ancient China or during the period of Mao's revolution. Aside from what I read in the papers/Internet, or see on TV, I have no idea what modern China is really like. This book didn't glorify anything; Beijing is like any big city, only amplified: dirty, smelly, greasy (city and people), with a lot of potential and a lot of drag. I felt like I recognized the China that Fenfang was interacting with; it came off as a slightly foreign New York City. In that way, it was accessible, and I could understand the loneliness and desperation that Fenfang sometimes felt.

On the other hand, however, I felt completely alienated from Fenfang and her experience. Even though Beijing is a big city, it's still China. And even though it's modern China, there are still Communist policies (for example, their belief that a young woman living alone must be a prostitute; Fenfang gets arrested at one point for that specific reason) and traditionalist attitudes to get by. I often felt apathetic towards Fenfang and her plight; it bothered me that I couldn't connect to Fenfang while I was reading, but in retrospect, I have to wonder if that isn't what the author intended. And then there's just the language. I felt mired down in the words -- again, I'm not sure if it was intentional on the author's part; this book was originally written and published in Chinese, and only later translated -- like the proverbial squirrel in a wheel: they spun and spun, and I never felt like they were moving the story anywhere. And when it eventually did, in the end, go somewhere, I found myself dissatisfied. The ending made sense, but felt abrupt (then again, much of the book felt abrupt, perhaps by design -- it is called "fragments" after all), and I found myself wanting something more.

The book does have a certain charm to it, and the glimpse into modern Chinese life is fascinating. I think I was just expecting and wanting something different than what I actually got.

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