This collection of six stories, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, was published in English in 2004, but the stories within were written between 1983 and 1990. Gao Xingjian (b. 1940) is a Nobel Prize Literature winner (2000).
I read this collection and enjoyed it. I also read a review (amateur) of this collection and reading that review sparked all kinds of thoughts in my head. Let me be upfront…. I did not agree with the review and I think the reviewer is [insert a kinder way of putting the words I am actually thinking here]. The reviewer reads a lot of pages, therefore has an opinion. But opinions also demonstrate the level of knowledge/proficiency toward a batch of knowledge. Sp there is the gulf between the academically-knowledgeable versus the “laymen’s opinion.” In this particular case, the reviewer misses the mark and it is fairly clear why – they just do not know better. A case of ignorance. My complaint, though, comes in when their opinion is influencing others… In any case, I decided to use their review as a springboard for my thoughts.
Reviewer: “Above all else, I value storytelling. I think a story should be just that, a story. If you want to evoke feelings and emotions purely from language and writing, then to me that is poetry. So go write that! Short form poetry, long form poetry…whatever floats your boat. Poetry to me is pure human emotion expressed through language and I am very much a fan of it. And I absolutely believe that human emotion can be expressed through storytelling and fiction writing in general too…but for it to be considered a story, I need a plot. I need something to cohesively connect together the beautiful words and emotions they can evoke, rather than simply having beautifully phrased words together on a page.”
Gao Xingjing’s writing – in this collection in particular – is surreal and non-traditional. These stories are non-linear and do not always contain the usual story elements. We have all seen that rudimentary novel 101 mountain of: Introduction – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Resolution. I think I first saw that in middle school? The majority of pulp authors use this sort of schematic all the time. Let it be said, too, that some very good, very entertaining novels have been produced following that schematic!
However, as literature develops, this linear “mechanical” setup surely has been and will be tested. The boundaries of the concept of the novel are pushed and expanded. Now, this writing – call it postmodern, call it avant-garde – is somewhat experimental. And readers who approach it with the expectation (demand?) that it conforms to their idea of novel-writing may not understand or enjoy it. Or, hopefully, they will enjoy the experience as a fresh and exciting new direction.
Or is it new?
Readers who proclaim to “value storytelling” and want “a story to be a story” should be queried for their thoughts on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Kafka’s The Castle, to name a few examples. And there are more than enough examples that can be cherry picked from the science fiction genre. Overwhelmingly, the first example that comes to mind is Philip K. Dick’s writing. Further, Cp. New Wave science fiction So, a reader must not confuse a new experience for themselves as a new event qua reality.
Secondly, that reviewer’s definition of poetry makes me see red, as the saying goes. I do not know where this zeitgeist/stereotype/shared delusion came from, but it sickens me. Go ahead, stand in front of me and tell me “poetry is for emotions and feelings” and get yo’ throat punch. I have conferred with Alex Pope and Bill Blake and Yeats and Matty Arnold and Ted Adorno. I have double-checked with Seamus Heaney and T.S. Eliot. I ran it by Li Po and Kobayashi Issa. And we all agreed that all literature has the ability to evoke emotions, but poetry is not and ought not be some juvenile, frivolous, ridiculous outpouring of emotion. Some poetry may evoke feeling. But to relegate all poetry to some adolescent teenage girl’s hyperemotionalism and drivel makes all of us very angry people. Poetry is a not a synonym for some beatnik, artsy-fartsy, whimpering.
Here is what Gao Xingjian had to say when he accepted his Nobel Prize (The Case for Literature):
Poetic feeling does not derive simply from the expression of the emotions nevertheless unbridled egotism, a form of infantilism, is difficult to avoid in the early stages of writing. Also, there are numerous levels of emotional expression and to reach higher levels requires cold detachment. Poetry is concealed in the distanced gaze. Furthermore, if this gaze also examines the person of the author and overarches both the characters of the book and the author to become the author’s third eye, one that is as neutral as possible, the disasters and the refuse of the human world will all be worthy of scrutiny. Then as feelings of pain, hatred and abhorrence are aroused so too are feelings of concern and love for life.
Reviewer: “So I guess he [Gao Xingjing] knows A LOT more about writing than I could ever hope to as a humble reader. So while I am not unhappy that I read this collection I think it just has shown me that perhaps this is not an author to my taste. We have very different opinions about literature and I guess we will have to respectfully agree to disagree!”
Saying “respectfully agree to disagree” is sometimes a cop-out. And in this reviewer’s comments, it is also disingenuous, is it not? The bolded “a lot” and the “a humble reader” speak to the insincerity with which the respectful agreement is reached. But the key line here is that “we have very different opinions about literature.” This is the key the whole of approaching this particular work by Gao Xingjian.
The only word that comes to mind, over and over again, while I read these stories was “superimposed.” In these stories, dreams are superimposed over imaginings over flashbacks. Layered simultaneous viewpoints are continually turning around and around the scenes of the “story.” In the story The Accident, the comments made by the multitude of bystanders seem to layer upon each other. All of the relativism and subjectivity just keeps spinning and layering throughout the whole story. Beautifully, all of these superimposed thoughts are punctuated by graphic, shocking tidbits of the actual scene. And then… as a sort of capstone superimposition…
“Of course a traffic accident can serve as an item for a newspaper. And it can serve as the raw material for literature when it is supplemented by the imagination and written up as a moving narrative: this would then be creation. However, what is related here is simply the process of this traffic accident itself….” – -pg 59
Because, what may vex readers even more is the fluidity Gao Xingjian has as a narrator/character flowing in and out of his stories whenever he pleases. “Breaking the fourth wall” is another technique common to avant garde literature. And Xingjian manages it nicely. So, if the reader’s preferred literature keeps the narrator “over there” and the audience “over here,” elements like this will make this collection even more of a struggle.
The reviewer’s honesty about a difference of opinion on what constitutes literature is where I suggest some of this discussion pivots. I think reading works like this – if even that can be said – should cause the reader to evaluate their own opinions on literature. To that end, the reader should reassess and re-calibrate their opinions, updating where necessary and reaffirming where applicable. That, indeed, is why Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize:
“for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama”
Not to say that I loved each piece in this collection and I will not praise them just because it purports to be postmodernist. The last piece, In An Instant, was not one I found enjoyable. I think it was too long. I recognized the stream of consciousness efforts and the superimposition of dreams, writing process, and reality. Unfortunately, the piece seemed too aware of what it was doing to be a total success and the length was displeasing.
I would contrast this with the title story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, which contains similar superimposed imagery and views. In this piece, though, the writing builds pounding angst in the reader. As I read it, I felt distress and sorrow alongside the main character. And I really liked the way it felt I was in that zone between sleep and awake where the television intrudes on my daydreams and the surrealism creeps in. Maradona is playing soccer and I am hunting tigers. I loved the depictions of Loulan Kingdom with the quicksand and the dried riverbeds. The wordsmithing here is exquisite.
“An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensable criterion for literary works. Indeed, such judgements differ from person to person because the emotions are invariably that of different individuals. However such subjective aesthetic judgements do have universally recognised standards. The capacity for critical appreciation nurtured by literature allows the reader to also experience the poetic feeling and the beauty, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sorrow and the absurdity, and the humour and the irony that the author has infused into his work.”
That last quote (Nobel acceptance speech) really does reply to myself and the Reviewer. Reader emotion is necessary for literature, says Gao Xingjian. And however much we are affected by and how effectual a work is definitely is rated on a subjective scale. So, let us not banish reference to emotions in any form of literature. However, there are recognized standards that seem to operate as a baseline for the wise, experienced reader. I totally agree with Gao Xingjian. And I might even present this whole segment from his speech as a vital “definitional” basis for literary studies. That, too, is why he won the Nobel Prize because he does know A LOT more about literature than I do.