20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

26/01/08, The Times

The Chinese novelist and filmmaker, Xiaolu Guo, created a splash with her second novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, last year. It was a refreshingly original and intelligent book on the fractures of the immigrant experience, seen through the prism of the strikingly awry and hilarious beginner’s English of the newly arrived immigrant to the West that manages to shake up both the language and the experiences of love and alienation. It was also a luminously romantic book. It did well, deservedly so, both in terms of sales and critical success, so the decision to bring out another novel, hard on the heels of the Dictionary, must have been pegged to the success of its predecessor. I remain unsure about the wisdom of that decision; while 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is by no means a bad book, it is somewhat anti-climactic after the big bang of her previous novel.

The story revisits the broad theme of Guo’s first outing in the West, Village of Stone: peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in China lost in the big city of Beijing. Here, Fenfang, seventeen-year old girl from a village surrounded by sweet potato fields as far as the eye can see, yearns for a different life far away from this village where lives haven’t changed for centuries. People cough and spit in the same way, at the same time of the day, every day, at the same point in the road leading to the fields, as they have done for years, as their forefathers have done for years and their forefathers before them. What Fenfang wants are the ‘shiny things’ in life. The obvious solution to her is to run away to Beijing to start off as an extra in films in the hope that she’ll climb up the ladder to the eventual stardom of, say, Gong Li. After scores of projects playing roles such as ‘woman walking over the bridge in the background’, or, as she puts it, ‘a shoulder here, a profile there, a face lost in a crowd’, the shiny things appear nowhere nearer.

A relationship with Xiaolin, dogsbody on the sets of a D-grade film, turns sour, while a burgeoning romance with American PhD student, Ben, ends when he flies back to Boston. Her friend, Huizi, encourages her to write scripts and introduces her to A Streetcar Named Desire. (‘Desire?’ [Fenfang muses] ‘That was a weird name for a car. I imagined that Tennessee Williams was from some shiny world swept by dramatic winds.’) Guo has a nice line in deadpan humour and scathing irony. There is even a nifty little script of a short film inserted into the novel (narrated in what could have been called ‘Chapters’ but ‘Fragments’ sounds cooler, I suppose). In the ‘Acknowledgements’, Guo explains that the book was written over ten years ago and she has had to rewrite it after it was translated. It’s funny and melancholy, scintillatingly observed, and with a very big heart, but quite some distance from her achievement in Dictionary.