Modern China is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary Genre
July 5, 2016 11:38 PM   Subscribe

Ning Ken's 4000-word essay translated by Thomas Moran. In the 1980s, when China was starting to open up to the world, Latin American literature, with Gabriel García Márquez as the representative, poured into China. When we read “magic realism,” it seemed familiar, it seemed close to us, and that is because in their suffering and their difficult, incredible histories, Chinese people and Latin Americans have a lot in common. Indeed, in the 1980s we often spoke of China as a place of “magic realism.” But since the 1990s, and especially in the past dozen years or so, China is no longer that place; it is now a place of the “ultra-unreal.”

If Magic Realism was the way in which Latin American authors presented their view of their reality, then Ultra-Unreal Realism should be our name for the literature through which the Chinese regard their reality. The Chinese word “chaohuan” (ultra-unreal) is something of a play on the word “mohuan” (magic), as in “mohuan xianshizhuyi” (magic realism)— “mohuan” is “magical unreal,” and “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal.”
posted by cgc373 (19 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's an interesting article. I was put in mind of David Foster Wallace's E Pluribus Unam, though maybe because his formalistic solution is the same: footnotes. That said, I think they're responding in quite different ways to a general feeling in modern global culture, that our time in history is especially crazy and fragmented. Whether that's true or not is besides the point, it's probably the single unifying opinion of the whole world. So much modern literature is in response to this feeling.
posted by Kattullus at 2:52 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


That was an awesome read. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:48 AM on July 6, 2016


Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem.

Incredible essay. Please make sure to read the author's summary of what makes their recent novel "The Three Trios" "ultra-unreal".

Can anyone recommend interesting Chinese speculative fiction? I'd love to take a deeper look.
posted by rebent at 6:02 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is fantastic. Living in Japan for my adult life so far, the main impression I've gotten of modern China is that the more I learn about China, the more I realize I have no clue whatsoever about China.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:05 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I haven't read it (yet) but The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo for best novel. It's the first book of a trilogy.
posted by kingless at 6:50 AM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was put in mind of David Foster Wallace's E Pluribus Unam

Stop that. Reverse it
posted by beerperson at 7:35 AM on July 6, 2016


The Three-Body Problem was great in some ways, very frustrating in others. Certainly an interesting read, especially if you are a fan of older hard sci-fi, which seems to be the primary (Western) influence.
posted by praemunire at 7:53 AM on July 6, 2016


I haven't read it (yet) but The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo for best novel. It's the first book of a trilogy.

I haven't read the entire linked article yet, but I get the impression the "ultra-unreal" genre they're talking about is fairly different from the Liu Cixin novel.
posted by aught at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2016


"...fairly different from the Liu Cixin novel."

Right, should've quoted what I was responding to: "Can anyone recommend interesting Chinese speculative fiction?"

Didn't mean to imply that the books have much in common, especially since I haven't read either one.
posted by kingless at 8:16 AM on July 6, 2016


This was a pretty interesting piece, and I don't begrudge a writer coming to terms with their own methodological starting points, but this point:

Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem.

Seems true of the whole 20th century. What Ken describes as unreal realities would fit right in in an early or mid-20th century novel like The Good Soldier Schweik or The Tin Drum or countless others. Sticking to single narratives arcs in fiction has, generally, been a marker of atavism at least since Joyce's Ulysses. Fiction that responds to the present responds to a life in which time is out of joint, and has for a century. It's interesting to see this moment happening all over again in Ken's manifesto. I don't know much about Chinese fiction, but it seems like it must've already happened, though?
posted by dis_integration at 8:40 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Based on the linked article, it seems that Pynchon's Against The Day is perhaps the most ultra-unreal novel ever written. Located in the mythic past, containing multiple storylines, comments on the present-day situation, is both fabulous and drawing from mythic genres while simultaneously being grounded in a past-present that is both entirely recognizable and entirely strange, and requiring a lot of deep knowledge about obscure subjects both present and past in order to begin to understand it on any level.

Most difficult book I've ever encountered, but ultimately quite worthwhile once I finally made it through.
posted by hippybear at 8:51 AM on July 6, 2016


None of this sounds "ultra-unreal". It just sounds ... regular real. This essay is why literary fiction is a dead genre IMO.
posted by gehenna_lion at 8:51 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


The whole "dead genre" thing is funny to me, sitting here about to become engrossed in the newish novel ("Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) in my lap and recalling all the great novels and short stories I've read since I first learned literary fiction is dead in the 1980s.
posted by Lyme Drop at 9:40 AM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


This essay is why literary fiction is a dead genre IMO.

Things sure are different in your timeline!
posted by aught at 12:38 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thinking of literary fiction as a genre seems kind of weird to me. Anything that can include Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro is clearly something different than a genre. There are no genre markers that serve to identify it, and any genre can produce literary fiction. I don't know exactly what to call it, perhaps a practice, or a subculture, or maybe just simply an art.
posted by Kattullus at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


The whole "dead genre" thing is funny to me, sitting here about to become engrossed in the newish novel ("Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) in my lap and recalling all the great novels and short stories I've read since I first learned literary fiction is dead in the 1980s.

I mean, I'm reading Americanah right now. It's great. There's still many voices to be heard from in fiction and lots of great things left to be said. But in terms of the form of a novel, I don't think there's much space available for innovation. The novel, as an artform, is complete, and in that sense dead. These days authors have a vast and multifarious palette of novelistic styles to choose from depending on how they want to tell a story, but they'll never come up with one that hasn't been tried before. It's as if each formalistic invention was the addition of a new note to the music of literature, and now we have all the notes. That doesn't mean new, exciting and rewarding literature can't be written, of course it can. It just won't be fresh in the way the novel was in the modernist period of the early to mid 20th century.
posted by dis_integration at 1:22 PM on July 6, 2016


Oh this is perfectly ridiculously...meta.

In the article (which I loved, on the whole), the author (a novelist) writes (of his latest "ultra unreal" work about China today):

"There are three layers to my novel. The first is the story of a man who has been infatuated with libraries since childhood. He is the narrator of the novel. His dream is to live in a library, and in his apartment he has a lot of books and a lot of mirrors. Because of the infinite regress effect of the reflection of the books in the mirrors, he is able to approximate his childhood dream of living inside a library.."

My metafilter profile pic is an (objectively) appalling snapshot of me standing last month in China in an incredible, brand new, infinitely regressing mirrored bookshop which has only just opened in Hangzhou (not so far from Shanghai). The mirrored bookshop walls reflect the reflections of the books and shelves etc etc. The effect is dizzying and dazzling. I've never seen another bookshop remotely like it - it's a work of art.

In the picture I am holding up a neatly hand lettered piece of paper which - I promise - says "Metafilter! Hangzhou..." .

The reason I am holding this impossible-to-read (which I noticed only after I posted it) piece of paper with metafilter printed on it - and looking half paralyzed with embarrassment (& jetlag) while my husband hastily snapped this photo inside the amazing infinitely regressing mirrored bookshelves bookstore - is because I only knew about this bookstore because mefite numaner had made an amazing post about it just as I was about to make a trip to China, including Hangzhou, (I live in Long Island) last month. And I wanted to have a pic to prove to numaner I'd actually found the amazing place in her post

But just when I was thinking "blimey what a coincidence...", how utterly extraordinary that my cutting edge experience of China's flashest new bookstore is captured in a dream passage in a cutting edge Chinese novel published just last year by a novelist, who also asserts (in the OP):

"Reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form...".


I went back to numaner's post (http://www.metafilter.com/160043/A-bookstore-filled-with-mirrors#6550320), then did some googling - and I see that the new mirror bookstore in Hangzhou may only have opened in April 2016 - but its mother ship (and inspiration) is another mirrors-and-endless-bookshelf-reflections emporium in Shanghai. And the mirrored mother ship bookshop - opened, I believe, back in 2014....

Which suggests our ultra unreal novelist - publishing in 2015 - may well have gotten his dream mirror bookshop inspiration directly from ultra unreal life...I hope this makes sense...
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:55 PM on July 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


dis_integration, I hear where you're coming from. Americanah, for instance, isn't particularly formally interesting. But I still come across new-seeming novels fairly regularly--Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers comes to mind as a recent example. In terms of short stories, there's plenty of innovative writing around--Lydia Davis comes immediately to mind. I don't think we're out of new notes yet.
posted by Lyme Drop at 3:49 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


fwiw, i've only seen a handful of (earlier) jia zhangke films -- platform, unknown pleasures, the world, still life -- but i think they capture some of ken's 'ultra-unreality' in china... more recently, a touch of sin and mountains may depart look pretty good/interesting.
posted by kliuless at 12:21 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


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