I first read Can Xue’s most recent novel translated into English, The Last Lover, on a road trip from New Jersey to Florida. I spent twenty-six hours cramped in a pickup truck with my girlfriend’s mother, father, and brother—the attentive reader will note a conspicuous absence—as the landscape blurred together, Pennsylvania mimicking Maryland, Virginia blending with Georgia, the Carolinas merging into a cardinal unity. My girlfriend, let’s call her my lover, flew from Arizona to Florida, where we swam with manatees, contemplated starting a business, and watched mermaids flip underwater. Disoriented? Intrigued? You’re beginning to understand how it feels to read The Last Lover.
The novel, which takes place in City B of the western nation Country A, is an uncanny, philosophical, and demanding exploration of love and existence. It follows an ensemble of characters: businessmen, plantation farmers, mistresses, housewives, street-sweepers, and insomniacs. If there is a main character, it would likely be Joe, a voracious reader who has devised a “singularly coherent method of linking his thoughts together.” This method allows him to reenter stories at will. He resides on the threshold between his everyday life, as a salesman, and his reading, like Don Quixote minus the lance and Sancho Panza. His wife, Maria, a housewife fascinated by mystical experiments, spends her days studying electrified cats, tending to roses that bloom year-round, and weaving intricate tapestries. The tapestries serve as portals into memory and backstory. As she weaves, Maria is transported back to her childhood. Other characters who view the tapestries feel as if they are “dropping into an abyss.”
Abyss plays a prominent role in Can Xue’s work. One does not passively read The Last Lover; one descends into the story. In an interview with Music & Literature, Can Xue states that, “[The Last Lover] certainly has linear narratives and descriptive parallels, but what I would like to emphasize is that the novel is suffused with a kind of ‘vertical’ (that is to say, ‘anti-gravitational’) movement of growth toward the earth’s core.” This verticality appears throughout the novel as narrative escape hatches above, or sinkholes tunneling underneath, its primary narrative threads. That is, if the book even has a primary narrative.
The Last Lover prioritizes philosophical musings on love over plot. The novel is saturated with couples of every variety: the happily married, the adulterous, friends, felines, the deceased, and the undead. For instance, Reagan, the owner of a rubber plantation, chases his mistress, Ida, throughout much of the novel. Joe’s boss, Vincent, both is and is not having an affair. Can Xue is interested in love as an existential conundrum, lovers who mirror each other becoming distinct, inextricable, and uninterpretable beings. The beloved mystifies the lover. The lover, in turn, tries to make sense of that mystery. In Can Xue’s world, love is an impossible quest, undertaken to solve the unsolvable puzzle of the beloved.
It makes sense, then, that so many characters in The Last Lover travel physical and metaphysical distances. Maria marches with an eerie red army. Joe meanders through interconnected stories. His boss, Vincent, explores the “village of dreams.” By refusing to situate the novel in a distinct, real-world location, Can Xue creates an oneiric landscape not unlike Juan Rulfo’s Comala or Franz Kafka’s Amerika. In Country A, the ground teems with Ouroboros-like snakes. Golden tortoises of desire seek their own deaths: for a “life of certainty.” Many characters are both alive and dead. Vincent’s wife Lisa, for one, has “died many times.” Joe meets a husband and wife who each insist that the other spouse is dead.
Can Xue weaves together these binaries, like Maria weaving her tapestries, to form an expansive realm where anything is possible. Here, death is not opposed to life but a variant form of existence. The power of her writing lies in its inventiveness and flexibility. It is no accident that such an elastic novel should have at its center a rubber plantation. Plot, character, setting, the DNA of storytelling, is malleable in The Last Lover. Like love, they undergo transformations to survive.
Can Xue’s protean ambitions could have produced a cluttered and unreadable novel, but she writes in a clear, concise style, which Annelise Finegan Wasmoen has deftly translated into English. Strange images are rendered with the utmost clarity:
It appeared this place had undergone a transformation. What kind of plants were they? They looked like climbing vines, with huge, egg-shaped leaves creeping along the silt like innumerable small beasts.
Seeing the beautiful wool, there floated in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out. Under the red sun there were human shapes like dewdrops. Her parents were two of those dewdrops.
The clarity of the prose works in conjunction with the novel’s narrative flux. Only language is certain and clear, delineating a paradoxical world where animals, people, and settings repeatedly merge and separate.
On our last day in Florida, my girlfriend and I traveled to a drowsy, muck-watered beach where tiny, tan-colored crabs scurried over the sand. At first glance the shore appeared to be trembling. A pair of nuclear reactors loomed a few miles behind us, fuzzing the sky with smoke. The scene may have fit nicely in The Last Lover—reunited lovers walking along a bizarrely ominous beach—however, Can Xue’s landscapes exceed the oddest earthly locations. She aligns herself with Dante, Calvino, Borges, and Kafka, as a writer of the global spirit. Like those writers, she sheds the constraints of reality for the peculiarly detailed realm of the imagination. The Last Lover is a skillful, enigmatic investigation of love that swells and subverts traditional narratives.
About the Reviewer
Alex McElroy's writing appears in The Millions, Music & Literature, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, Passages North, Southwest Review, Memorious, and more work can be found here. He is currently the International Editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.