Monday, October 8, 2007

Wei Hui/SHANGHAI BABY

Self-congratulatory fashion-conscious 25-year-old cheats on her impotent, depressed, drug-addicted true love with a married German while jetting about amongst fancy people and encouraging them to tell her how talented she is. Favorite gems include "He pulled down my Calvin Klein panties" (Thanks, Melanie, for flagging this one for me). Seriously?

I'm tired of this "edgy" "next generation" self-indulgent Chinese bimbo crap. There's so much of it. Chinese literature is famously content-focused instead of stylistically-focused (meaning you can still make it if you're world's lousiest writer, like the founding father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun). But seriously--I don't feel like Wei Hui's anti-feminist super-materialistic (can I say it?) rather trashy gad about town is significantly contributing to Chinese culture content-wise. I think it's a little sad that she's one of the few frontlist examples we see of modern Chinese literature.

PW had a long article a couple of weeks ago about how American publishers are still trying to find a Chinese voice that sells here (the Chinese Murakami, they say oh so non-controversially). But Wei Hui?!

5 comments:

angelle said...

i read that in college i think. i kept trying to figure out if it was autobiographical, and looked at the picture and felt she wasn't nearly as pretty as she claimed to be.

either way, the book was kinda just blah. i didn't hate it or anything, it was just kinda like, okay, i read it, okay, so what. i exited the book exactly the same way i went into it. completely unchanged. that really is the worst kind of book, in a way.

Froog said...

I tend to feel uncomfortable with novels that have too 'autobiographical' a feel to them. In this case, I think it's probably a fantasy-autobiography. Wei Hui probably isn't nearly as hip and sexy and uninhibited as she'd like to think she is.

This book sells on sex - it's art-porn. That, and the zeitgeist thing: people are fascinated to know what China is like at the dawn of the new century; they're particularly interested in its young people, in its newly-affluent middle class, and in the revolution in sexual attitudes that comes with a more open society.

Oddly enough, I didn't hate this book. It's trashy and unsubstantial, yes, but I didn't think the writing was bad; and there is something strangely appealing about the brazen self-confidence of the authorial persona.

Be careful what you say about Lu Xu, Moonrat. I like Lu Xun. Well, I like his stories anyway. The style, I suppose, does tend to be rather stripped-down, matter-of-fact - Gorky-esque reportage? But it's difficult to speak of questions of style in a translation - how far can an English version evoke the 'style' of the original?

I have reservations about the functionality of the Chinese language for any purpose - law, philosophy, scientific discourse, everday communication.... or literature. It's probably only in the last couple of decades that writers here have started to forge a more vernacular form of literary language. I haven't yet found any really modern Chinese writers who really impress me - but I'm always on the lookout.

You might be interested in this 'literary blog' run by some translators I know: http://www.paperrepublic.org

moonrat said...

I'm not the first person to ever bring this up (I think it's well-trafficked blog territory, but) but it seems to me that people either feel strongly that the books they read and enjoy have a plot and good characters or that they are well-written. Obviously the ideal is a meeting of both a good plot/character set and good style, but for me good writing can sustain a book in which not much happens, while a plot-packed adventure jammed poorly written book is just boring.

Example: I really enjoyed REMAINS OF THE DAY and ATONEMENT and UNLESS (the latter being one of my favorite books), and all three are largely without plot. One tier below those books on my scale are books like THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (and, for that matter, all the Harry Potter books)--clever, exciting books with interesting plots that were all very competently written...only somehow slightly less resonant. At the very very bottom of the scale (there are a lot of levels in between) are books like PS I LOVE YOU and THE DA VINCI CODE--in theory, exciting compelling plots that have been WASTED on poor writers.

I'm a slow reader and for me the experience needs to be a really deeply escapist one or I won't get lost in a book. Can you imagine reading THE DA VINCI CODE slowly? So that's my personal bias. People tend to read books for different reasons, so I'm really not saying this for snob literary appeal or anythig. I think the split here tends to be half and half, people who need a good plot versus people who need good writing.

Part of the problem for me with Chinese novels in translation (and Japanese novels in translation, for that matter) is the simple difference in language structure prevents just about any style from translating--Chinese in English feels choppy and falsely earnest while Japanese feels giddy and overwrought. I really don't envy those translators.

But that aside, regardless of how great the book was in its native language, I can't help that I'm going to enjoy it marginally less than I would a really stylistically seductive English language book. I'm just being honest. It's a little more work and a little less fun to wade through something that isn't beautiful.

On the topic of Lu Xun, I understand he's the founding father of modern Chinese literature etc, and that his revolutionary ideas helped propogate the idea of empowerment of the working class and all that idealogical pre-Maoism. I simply don't enjoy his writing because style is very, very important to me. I was prepared to extend his work a literary olive branch until I read stories by Shen Congwen, who only wrote a couple of decades after Lu Xun but still manages to be much more concerned with how his writing sounds than Lu Xun was.

Although this might go to your point of the rapidly developing Chinese literary vernacular, and how nothing at all like that existed (is it really possible?) when Lu Xun wrote at the turn of the 20th century. But EVEN SO it is still work to get through his stuff for me.

I gave Wei Hui and "eh" because in the end I didn't hate it. I just feel a little sad because she's such a foreign-obsessed flake and I don't feel like she's giving the "West" a ver complete picture of what life is like in China. Not that that should be her responsibility--it only falls on her because there isn't much else available.

Froog said...

On the representativeness of Wei Hui - there are A LOT of "foreigner-obsessed flakes" out here, especially among girls of her social background.

I haven't read Lu Xun in years. I should go back and have another look, and perhaps compare with this Shen Congwen - of whom I confess I have never heard.

moonrat said...

Shen Congwen ROCKS.