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A- : seems to just putter along, but strong current underneath
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The complete review's Review:
Ruined City begins with ambitious young Zhou Min running away from his hometown of Tongguan County with an unhappily married woman, Tang Wan'er, and settling down in Xijing (a thinly disguised version of author Jia's own hometown of Xi'an).
If you have your heart set on becoming part of Xijing's literary community, you can't do so without knowing the Famous Four.The most famous of the four -- "he is at the top of the heap and is the most accomplished; his fame is the most far-reaching" is the author Zhuang Zhidie -- who happens to also come from the same hometown as Zhou Min; indeed, Zhuang Zhidie is: "the pride of Tongguan".
Indirectly through Zhuang Zhidie, Zhou Min gets his first opportunity in Xijing, a position at Xijing Magazine (where Zhuang Zhidie had once worked as an editor) -- and the first piece he eventually contributes is a profile of the famous author. Taking a few liberties, the piece has some sensational revelations -- including, as a billboard advertises: "an exclusive exposé of a secret affair by the celebrated writer". The woman in question -- Jing Xueyin -- isn't mentioned, but is readily identifiable, and she kicks up a fuss. And while the affair dates back to before his marriage, Zhuang Zhidie's wife, Niu Yueqing also isn't thrilled. Jing Xueyin isn't willing to let the matter drop, seeking redress where she can -- and eventually taking it to the courts (and even trying to get it treated as a criminal matter, though in the end the resulting trial is in the civil court).
Zhuang Zhidie is only one of the defendants, but: "the charge against him was the longest, with the most sarcastic terms"; obviously, the case is also very personal. And while Zhuang Zhidie maintains there wasn't that much to the affair -- "I'll never admit that we were in love", he insists --, Jing Xueyin feels deeply hurt by how things ended up, and how she was portrayed in the magazine piece.
Zhuang Zhidie is the central character in the novel, and it his flawed relationships with women -- passionate, but also limited -- that underlies much of what happens. The distant one with Jing Xueyin is just one representative example, its consequences just played out differently (in written words and legal proceedings). So, although Zhuang Zhidie gets along with his wife -- for the most part -- there's clearly something missing from the marriage, while his affairs -- specifically with Zhou Min's girlfriend, Tang Wan'er, and then the girl that's hired as a maid in the household, Liu Yue -- also provide little resolution for anyone. Centers do not hold here; everything falls apart.
The article about Jing Xueyin, and the legal proceedings she institutes, provide the story-arc and foundation for the novel: the article appears very early on in the story, while Jing Xueyin's attempts to get justice (or revenge) are a constant nuisance to the main characters as the novel progresses; at the end of the novel the court case finally comes to a conclusion with a (somewhat surprising) final judgment from the Superior Court, the final nails in the coffin of the various characters' fates. Yet while this case is, in a way, the foundation of the novel, it is also something Jia keeps and uses largely as background. Even when it gets to its most exciting -- the actual case in court (where some rather dramatic events occur) -- Jia chooses not to follow the characters there but rather presents what happened only second-hand. So too, while Zhuang Zhidie's character is the core of the novel, he is often off-scene, or unavailable (and not just emotionally). The court case is sensational -- when it's over there's a media frenzy -- but only a limited amount filters through; yes, someone even publishes a pamphlet on The Ins and Outs of Zhuang Zhidie's Scandalous Lawsuit -- a case that's confusing enough that a written guide is welcome -- but Ruined City is anything but a legal thriller.
Yet on the surface, there doesn't seem to be that much more to Ruined City, either. Zhuang Zhidie is a famous writer who constantly says he needs to get to work -- but doesn't seem to get around to much. He and his wife own a bookstore, and there are some expansion plans, such as adding a gallery, which slowly move forward. Midway through the story they hire Liu Yue as a maid -- a flighty, opportunistic girl who does liven things up (though as someone notes: "She has an aura of calamity" ...). And Zhuang Zhidie and Tang Wan'er have a passionate affair, but are uncertain where it will lead.
Much of what happens -- most of the 'action', it seems -- is pretty everyday; indeed, Ruined City is remarkable for its willingness to putter along through the everyday, in contrast to so much modern fiction that insists up spectacular and dramatic incident after incident. Here it goes so far that there's a great deal of discussion about (as well as going to) toilets -- from the city-planning stage (there's still a great reliance on public facilities in Xijing, and with the growth of the city a need for more to be built) to the domestic. From arranging meals and meetings to various small items different characters purchase, Ruined City offers an intimate account of what seem like the not too exciting lives of these characters. But that's not quite how it works out: going on at length does serve a purpose; Ruined City does add up to something more, its cumulative and final effect quietly devastating.
Ruined City is also notorious (and was long banned) for its graphic sexual accounts and, yes, what is often literally the exchange of bodily fluids (Jia does tend towards the graphic, in matters sexual and otherwise) does play a prominent role in the novel, as Zhuang Zhidie in particular is often overcome by lust. (It should be noted that there's also quite a bit of not having sex -- one or another partner not in the mood.) Yet at what is presumably its dirtiest, Ruined City turns demurely away, Jia having fun with the censors by censoring himself, highlighting passages that have been cut. So there are quite a passages which feature breaks in the action, where the reader learns only:
She stopped and took off her shoes and silk stockings. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 213 words.] He watched her squirm through drunken eyes; his lips twitched, his eyes rolled back, and he cried out. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 50 words.](The longest such act of self-censorship appears to be one of 995 words .....)
Sex plays a large role in the story, but it's only part of it, and Jia handles that well; what troubles these characters, and the troubles they bring upon themselves involve the full complexity of relationships, extending beyond sex. Hence, presumably, Jia's insistence on chronicling so closely so much else that is mundane (but just as much a part of life and relationships).
Beyond the court case, Jia also employs several other devices that impose some structure and unity on the novel. There is an old vagrant who composes clever, allusive verse, and there is a cow that Zhuang Zhidie gets his milk (directly) from and with which he feels a special bond. And there is Niu Yueqing's strong-willed, ancient mother, who appears to be entirely off her rocker but displays some remarkable wisdom.
While almost all of Ruined City is entirely naturalistic -- "a realist piece based on the principles of literary creation", as Zhuang Zhidie also says about Zhou Min's trouble-causing work -- Jia very occasionally briefly strays into the supernatural, suggesting and following trails of reincarnation, for example, or offering the cow's perspective ("The cow finally realized what a city really was: a place where regressed humans congregate after they can no longer adapt to nature and the universe, when they are afraid of the wind, the sun, the cold, and the heat"). These bits can seem stray -- and at odds with the rest of the novel -- but they have their place, as becomes clear as the novel comes to its conclusion (where the cow becomes a much stronger symbol).
For much of the story, Ruined City is a novel of promising striving -- most notably Zhou Min and Tang Wan'er making a new start in the new city, writer Zhuang Zhidie wanting to write, and Liu Yue seizing any opportunity -- but decay (moral, especially) and corruption haunt it. At first, there are comic elements to this, as, for example, Huang Hongbo is in the pesticide business and comes to Zhuang Zhidie, desperately hoping the writer can help him save his reputation after his wife attempts suicide by ingesting his company's 'No. 101' -- but it turned out when the hospital analyzed what the wife ingested, they found No. 101 "contains no toxic elements". But tragedy follows farce: a second attempt by Huang Hongbo's wife is successful. Others also fall by the wayside, and among others, most of the 'Famous Four' also don't fare so well.
Indeed, by the end, everything is wrack and ruin -- and it's remarkable how quietly Jia has brought it about.
Early on, Zhuang Zhidie wonders: "Am I adapting to society or becoming corrupt ?" and it is one of the basic questions of the novel. Jia's depiction of this city and society is of one corrupted not so much politically (thought how much connections matter is a prominent feature in the story) but morally and culturally. Even pesticide -- the simplest poison -- is a fraud in this world. (Among Jia's other amusing examples is that of a young writer who tries to go into the steaming buns business but can't get the recipe right; a cook reveals the secrets to a proper bun: "adding yeast, powdered laundry detergent, and chemical fertilizer, after which the buns were smoked in sulfur" .....)
If not entirely apolitical, Ruined City is also remarkable in how little the larger political context factors in the lives of the characters. What discussion there is of greater (Chinese) politics is, tellingly, almost entirely in the context of calligraphy, with works by prominent Communist leaders among that discussed. Cultural artefacts matter more (and are more lasting) than political directives here, with even Mao's legacy reduced to brushstrokes. So also Zhuang Zhidie is a collector, and his bookshelves have space reserved for historical objects. The literary classics are referred to, too -- but Jia uses even that to drive home his point (bovinely, once again):
The cow did have that urge one day, when an old man turned on his radio to listen to Journey to the West, the tale of a monk who retrieves the sacred Buddhist texts and fights demons with the help of Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, and their White Horse. Convinced that modern people can only enjoy the spectacle, not the classical author's meaning, the cow wanted to shout: It's not about a master and his four disciples, but about the idea that only through their combined effort can nature be conquered and the sutras obtained. But what can humans do now that they no longer have Buddhism in their hearts and have lost the spirit of the monkey, pig, and horse ?Jia suggests what must follow is ruin -- and, on the small, personal scale that's pretty much what happens in Ruined City in its sad resolution.
The pacing of Ruined City isn't like that in most contemporary fiction. It putters along and the action can seem limited, even inconsequential. It takes up different threads, and leaves characters out of sight -- and grasp -- for extended stretches, the focus not on what one imagines is the central story, but rather on the incidental. Even when things come to a head in a courtroom, Jia keeps his distance, preferring to summarize second-hand. It takes a certain kind of patience to read this kind of often pedestrian-seeming narrative, and the payoff may well not be sufficient for many readers. But in its sum Ruined City is also a powerful, ultimately even devastating work -- a striking success.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 March 2016
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Chinese author Jia Pingwa (贾平凹) was born in 1952.
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