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March 14, 2017

Book Notes - Can Xue "Frontier"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Can Xue's novel Frontier is an avant-garde literary masterpiece.

Kirkus reviews wrote of the book:

"Odd, atmospheric, and enchanting: a story in which, disbelief duly suspended, one savors improbabilities along with haunting images and is left wanting more."

In her own words, here is Can Xue's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Frontier:

A real modern artist or writer should be a cosmos, or as we Chinese say, a small Nature when she or he is creating his or her works. This cosmos is a contradiction that pushes forward through two forces that interact with each other within it. After I had listened to The Quiet by the remarkable composer Chaya Czernowin at least five times, I became quiet too. “What is it?” I asked myself time and again. But I didn’t know. At the same time, I longed to listen to it once more. And I did. After a dozen listens, more and more things were surging in the dark bottom of my heart. I was ignited by this extremely strong piece of music. In an excited and perplexed state, time and again, I tried to pay careful attention and catch some trend in the background of the piece, until a pattern gradually formed in my brain —a pattern of strength.

It’s a dynamic pattern—a dark, giant, body-like thing tries to take on the shape, it’s also obscure and heavy, and you can feel its threatening power coming steadily toward you, getting nearer and nearer even when you want to forget it. Opposite to Mother Earth is the Light, he is firm and bright, and he restricts her forever, but is never able to change her (in my view, his real will is not to change her, but is just to strengthen her and make her wilder). These two forces are at daggers drawn. And there is always a fierce fighting between them. In a kind of fierce movement of the contradiction, the Dark Earth is endlessly undergoing collapse and destruction, But neither of the two ever disappears completely. They change their modes of motion through metamorphosis. Often after a long time of gathering and strengthening, they fight against each other more fiercely again. I think the images of the cosmos evoked in The Quiet are also the images of the body and soul of the artistic self. So the music is a poetic and wild song of the body’s revenge. The body is the most poetic thing in the universe.

For me, quiet means listening, waiting and concentrating your attention on your dark body (or Mother Earth), and discerning carefully the free will of the body (or Mother Earth). Quiet also means that a body can’t speak or sing alone. It’s artists who make their bodies sing, speak. But this sort of singing is from a profound silence that has lasted for thousands of years in the history of human beings.

The experience of listening to The Quiet is just like what I had gone through when I was building up Frontier, my novel, ten years ago. It is I—Can Xue—who had appeared as the image of a border town, a small cosmos. Here, everybody in this grotesque place only does one sort of thing—struggles hard to break free; or explains freedom with his (her) body; or demonstrates a life of freedom with his (her) actions. And every one of them takes a long and tough journey. By the end each person reaches the kingdom of freedom through her (or his) own fight against self-enforcement. Like The Quiet, I think that this sort of creation can be called “ performance art.” Your body’s performance depends on an intense passion and a firm resolution. You move your body, struggling and breaking through toward a state of Beauty. Then step-by-step, gradually, the pattern will appear in your work. You’re the one who builds it up. In this kind of writing, it’s impossible to make a mistake. Because what you have built up is always the image of your artistic self, and you yourself have become the cosmos. Your state is the one of freedom. And your footprints describe your image of your artistic self. Whatever you actions, your performance is always “right.” But “thinking” before you act will always destroy what you want to build up. A successful artwork needs both your body and your brain to work simultaneously and together, you have to always give an improvisational performance, in every second.

So the most important thing for an artist or writer is to concentrate on his or her body, to force it to make unimaginable movements. For this aim you need both a very strong rational spirit in your brain and the wildest imaginative power in your body. When I ponder The Quiet and Frontier, one thing becomes more and more clear: that both of the women authors have the two types of abilities. That’s why their bodies can carry on this special kind of creation—a creation that takes the strength of a contradiction to build up their selves or their universe.

Can Xue and Frontier links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Words Without Borders review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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