Not schooled in art history or appreciation, my way of overcoming the knee-jerk "a child could've scribbled that" response to abstract and experimental gallery work is to appreciate the way it forces me to interact with it. How does it linger against my eyes in after-image? How is it hijacking my senses, making me see things that aren't there? How does an artist's subtle engineering of space, light, colour, extend the canvas into my body and make material of me?
I think of this, among other things, while reading Frontier, because its subtlety is so careful and precise and its effect so wild and diffuse. It's difficult to talk about it except in effect — I find it necessary to write around it, to speak in spirals, because it isn't a story so much as an experience of walking through spider-webs and dew.
Pebble Town is at the foot of Snow Mountain. There is a grove of poplar trees, some of which are dead; there is a Design Institute, where many people are employed, but few work; there are people, many people, who aren't certain about how or when they arrived, what they want, how to speak to each other. These people interact at market, or in shops, or in the grove of poplar trees, or in their courtyards and homes, and they sometimes have startling insights into each other that are as brief and ephemeral as blown dandelion seed, catching on to people's thoughts before being buffeted along the next breeze from Snow Mountain.
Each chapter focuses, in a curious and distracted way, on a person or a relationship: Liujin, a woman who lives alone and sells cloth at the market; Juan and Nancy, a couple who travel to Pebble Town from Smoke City; Qiming, a lovelorn janitor at the Design Institute; Ying, the book's only black man. Haunted by Snow Mountain and the poplar grove, watching the birds, intermittently measuring their distance from the ocean, hunting a mysterious tropical garden that might live inside a small boy named Roy, the citizens of Pebble Town try to understand their neighbors and end up more distant from themselves.
Reading this book is like trying to solve a mystery in a dream. Like the Pleiades, it's best glimpsed without looking at it directly. Patterns recur, but to track them or expect them to lead to something is a mistake. (Imagine a Mirkwood where the only caution is not to walk the path, because to do so is to walk it forever.) Porochista Khakpour, in a beautiful, thoughtful introduction to the book and Can Xue's work, notes that the book seems pleasurably to lengthen as we read it — and this was absolutely my experience. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping's translation is that species of wonderful that makes you forget you're reading a translation until they see fit to remind you, which is also deeply of a piece with Pebble Town's absent-minded strangeness.
I was powerfully reminded of several other books as pieces in the soft, seamless puzzle of this one: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, with its characters wandering in the memory-obscuring fog, uncertain of their histories, oppressed by the thought of being parted, fearing the reveal of forgotten secrets. William Golding's Pincher Martin, with its jutting island landscape manifested out of an aching tooth, inhabited by a man alone, confronted by memories. C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, with its invisible Grey Town citizens seeking out something real, both longing and fearing to find it. Virginia Woolf's A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, where characters are filled to the brim with multitudes of desires and anxieties that they can't seem to speak or share with each other.
Jean Dubuffet's painting Shot in the Wing hangs in the Detroit Institute of Art with the following inscription:
At first glance, this jumble of colors, shapes, and words resembles a graffiti-covered wall. But spend some time looking and you'll begin to see doorways, windows, and little figures.
Can Xue's Frontier is not a graffiti-covered wall, and her colours are not Dubuffet's bright oranges, pinks and greens — it's more like a forest floor with a river nearby, where every now and then a cold wind that smells of snow stirs up the fallen leaves. But like Dubuffet's painting, the more you look, the more you see, and the harder it is to speak of what you see to someone who isn't also looking.