“I am feeling wordless. I call it wu yu. It’s like I have lost my language.”
You wrote back:
“Why lost? If you have really lost one language, aren’t you gaining another?”
I read your words a few times. I thought, why can’t I hold on to one language while gaining another at the same time? Why do I have to lose one first? I looked out into the dull night sky, and got no answer.
The title and epigraph for Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse both come from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, which I have never read and know basically nothing about. (The only Barthes I’ve read is S/Z, decades ago and it never “took.” Sorry: it’s too late to rescind my Ph.D.!) Maybe the novel would have made more sense to me—or, would have felt more unified to me—if I understood that intertextual connection. Or maybe not, given that the one thing I do know about Barthes’ work is that it too is fragmentary, which does at least tell me that there is a degree of formal indebtedness and that unity, or completeness, was probably not a goal. That the novel seemed to me to have opened up more questions than it answered is probably not, then, a failure on its part—but I still found it unsatisfying, even faintly irritating.
A Lover’s Discourse reads easily—too easily, I am tempted to say, because the reason the pages go by so quickly is that there’s not much on them. If there’s a lot behind them, then IMHO Xiaolu Guo leaves too much of the work of discovering it up to me. Each short section is like a sketch or vignette; cumulatively these pieces chronicle the relationship between the narrator, a graduate student from China studying “visual anthropology” in London, and her lover, a landscape architect from Germany by way of Australia (or is it the other way around?). They meet, they fall in love, they move in together, they buy a boat to live on, she gets pregnant, they trade the boat for another flat, they get married, they visit his family in Germany, they buy a farm in Germany, they move back to London. (At this level, the novel is very easy to follow, and reasonably enjoyable.) And they talk: this, presumably, is the “discourse” of the title.
My confusion-slash-frustration arose from the elements around the novel’s simple plotline—or, arguably, missing from it. One example: The epigraph for each segment is a bit of dialogue from that segment. Why? Does that mean the rest of the section is just there to contextualize those lines? But what’s the value of reading them once out of context and once in it? It seemed both affected and repetitive. Another: What’s the significance of the directional names for the book’s larger divisions (West, South, Up, Down, etc.), which don’t really seem to apply to anything in them? Do they mean that the novel itself is about (finding? losing?) direction? Is disorientation a theme, a formal premise? Along those lines, are my largely unsuccessful attempts to discern meaning and patterns across the novel as a whole evidence that the book is doing what it wanted to, or that I’m reading it badly, or that it is not just impressionistic (artfully so) but incoherent (badly written, or imperfectly conceived)? Is my frustrated wish for the book to explain itself better actually the author’s desired effect, a challenge to my own reading habits? I do tend to value books that feel finished to me, rather than leaving large gaps for me to fill in myself. (Am I, in theory at least, “losing” one reading language and gaining another?)
Two aspects of the novel seemed particularly important: the narrator’s thesis, a study of a Chinese village where the central trade is creating meticulous copies of fine art masterpieces (so, prompting questions about authenticity, originality, artistry, reproduction, and value); and her lover’s work making art out of nature (so, prompting questions about rural vs. urban, exterior vs. interior, shaping vs. living with nature). These are all really interesting questions and the bits of dialogue about them are also engaging—but I can’t offer a reading of the novel that ties all the pieces together. Again, maybe I’m not supposed to, or maybe I just haven’t put in enough time and effort to do so. (It’s my blog: it’s the one place I’m allowed to write without agonizing first.) I do tend to seek the aboutness of a novel: I don’t think this is about reducing it to one idea or lesson, but about making sense of why this novel contains these elements. Maybe this novel resists that aim of internal coherence. Maybe (see how dubious I am about all of my ideas in this post?) I’m not supposed to feel at home in it. Maybe? I guess I feel that if so, I should actually be sure about that, and not torn between that possibility and the possibility that it’s just not a very good novel.
Now I’m going to read the NYRB piece about Xiaolu Guo, which I’m sure will set me straight.
Update: I notice a fair amount of equivocation in the NYRB review also—a lot of “perhaps” and “maybe”—and no real interpretive conclusion; it’s mostly descriptive. Its author is more appreciative than I am, but there’s no “aha!” moment that shows me up as a fool.