To crack open Can Xue’s Frontier is to enter a world governed by dream logic.
Entering that world requires letting go of any of one’s usual fiction-reading expectations. Time and space don’t operate as expected, and Can Xue doesn’t offer much in the way of replacement physics in the world she’s built. Pebble Town, where most of the novel takes place, is on the edge of a northern “frontier,” but feels like it could be on the border of reality and whatever its weirdest inverse is. The inhabitants, both human and animal, never seem to be fully sharing the same reality with one another. They come and go, appearing and disappearing, sleeping and talking and eating and working in irregular rhythms, moved by unpredictable tides of motivation.
I think the janitor Qiming puts it best, reflecting on his home early in the book: “Nothing seemed to be a secret, yet everything was mysterious at the same time.”
Can Xue has authored six novels, fifty novellas, and 120 short stories. “Can Xue” is a pseudonym, which means both “the dirty snow that refuses to melt,” and “the purest snow at the top of a high mountain” in her native Chinese, according to Porochista Khakpour’s introduction. Only a handful of her works have been translated into English. This is the first I have read.
It’s difficult to say what exactly the plot of Frontier is. It reads like a series of short, surreal episodes, organized into chapters that each follow a different character. The pacing is erratic and the characters unpredictable, their thoughts and conversations often materializing out of thin air and dissipating just as suddenly.
Fittingly, each character seems to be in a constant state of discovery. Big-city transplant Nancy searches for a floating tropical garden, glimpsed once from a neighbor’s window; runaway Roy seeks seeks literal recognition from strangers; jilted janitor Qiming yearns for the Uighur beauty he fell in love with in his youth; insomniac Jose pursues truth and sleep; returned adoptee Marco tries to make his way back to “Holland”; lonely Liujin, the only major character who was born in Pebble Town and is thus a “child of the frontier,” wants some kind of companionship from the revolving cast of people and animals who visit her home. They set out in search of these things, and often end up somewhere completely unexpected, the laws of physics and narrative structure suddenly twisting to deliver them to some new place, disorienting protagonist and reader alike.
Frontier is not light reading. It’s a book that demands both close attention and a willingness to be taken for a ride without knowing where you will end up. Attempts to dismantle metaphors or divine concrete character development will leave you frustrated. Frontier doesn’t yield its secrets easily, and I suspect that whatever truths it harbors are like the snow leopards that wander around Pebble Town. Sometimes they’re visible, sometimes they’re invisible, and sometimes they are detected only by certain characters. One character sheds blood battling them; another simply notices their warmth and weight when they sit on his feet unseen under the tea table.
Frontier, First edition, 2017
Publisher: Open Letter at the University of Rochester, March 2017
Translators: Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping