Sunday Review: The Last Lover
a novel from Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
[ Yale University Press / 2014 / 336 pp ]
In the opening chapter of Can Xue’s The Last Lover, a piece of gossip begins to circulate about Vincent, the owner of a clothing company. According to Joe’s wife Maria, who heard from Vincent’s wife Lisa, he’s been spotted leaving the house of a woman in black. In the next chapter Vincent recalls his first encounter with the unnamed woman: “Lying on a simple, crude bed, half-awake, she had brought him to climax again and again. The strange thing was that the woman was just a figure. There was no body belonging to her…Her body itself had no weight to it.” That entire night, Vincent exists “on the terrace of climax,” experiencing a pleasure that continues to climb with no release, a consummation without end. Grasping her hand, he finds empty air. The woman leaves at daybreak, and Vincent travels south to find her—undeterred by the fact that she’s likely only a dream.
Set in an unnamed Western country, The Last Lover revolves around six people, each of whom embark on similarly doomed and tortuous quests of longing. While Vincent roams through midnight gardens in search of the black-veiled woman, his wife Lisa embarks on “long marches” with ghostly members of the Red Army. Joe, a voracious reader, disappears into a separate reality constructed through his books—growing, over the years, unrecognizable to his wife Maria, who weaves stories on her loom. Plantation owner Reagan lusts after his worker-cum-mistress Ida, who runs to escape his advances. Like objects inside a kaleidoscope, the characters tumble in and out of each other’s paths in constantly shifting configurations. Within a spatially and existentially unstable universe—where slipping through the basement door could transport you to your wife’s hometown, or into the text of a dream—they may chase and evade one another for weeks and months, only to collide somewhere as banal as a train station.
When the estranged pairs do meet, the encounters are vexed, alien. As in the case of Vincent and his lover, bodies have a habit of dissolving upon contact. In one scene, Maria recalls the rare moments of intimacy she shares with her husband after years of sleeping apart: “When she imagined herself a lioness, Joe became a vapor.” When Maria, charged with desire, embraces Joe one night: “She let out a lion’s roar, and from a remote place came a faint echo.” Exchanges that ought to signal reunion instead expose the complete mystery of the other person. Towards the novel’s end, Ida returns to the farm and spends a long-awaited night with Reagan, in which she reaches the “deepest place” inside him. But come morning, a distance has opened up. Ida “tried as hard as she could to return to her dreamscape and converse with Reagan”, but the only words she can form are “ah, ah, ah.” Reagan assumes that Ida’s body had disappeared, “because the voice he heard sounded like it played from a tape recorder.” In a universe where fulfillment—of desire, of meaning—is perpetually deferred, the state of knowing somebody is revealed to be the most impossible dream.
Halfway through the book, the separated Ida and Reagan begin to yearn for one another. “During the long, long night, [Reagan] and Ida had dug their own deep caves, each listening to the sounds made by the other.” A chunk of rubble hits Reagan’s head. The lovers draw tantalizingly close (“he heard her digging reach underneath his feet”), before the text remembers the impossibility of this situation and moves on. It was a mission no less doomed than the rest of the book; but that night, tunneling blindly inside the earth, Ida and Reagan search in reciprocity, at once together and completely alone.
Visit Yale University Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Joy Shan
Five Things with Natalie Diaz
1. The last thing that made you smile.
A conversation with my friend Christian Campbell, a poet and lion. It was a smile that made me feel strong.
2. A secret.
Sometimes I add an ice cube and a splash of Reed’s Extra Spicy Ginger Beer to my Laphroiag.
3. The last thing you wrote.
A poem called ‘American Arithmetic’ and about seven hundred and thirty-five email replies. (Just yesterday.)
4. Favourite city.
Where she is.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
My old cellphone, which I broke last week—it has all my old contacts and addresses (I like to send letters and postcards) and pictures and lives and hours locked in it. Maybe in the future we won’t need to back anything up ever.
Natalie Diaz is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and splits her life between the East Coast and the Mojave Valley.
If you would like to be considered for the ‘Five Things’ series, email your answers to:
In July on the California Coast
poetry from Cade Leebron
“how perfect, to be / destroyed by the thing you were named for.”
I’ve come to know Cade’s work for its sharpness–if you haven’t read any of her essays, you are missing out on some rib cage-baring truths and pain. Her poems have narrative, a scene, development like a prose piece, but have their own beauty. The language is especially catastrophic and enveloping with strong ‘d’ sounds: see words “divorced”, “dissected”, and “deep”, which only reinforce the destruction caused by “dark water”.
However, the disasters in this poem aren’t just forces of nature, but rather ourselves. Consider the ending “Be mine / always. Until we’re breathing in the tide.” This poem is proof that we do exist in moments of come-apart and breaking.
Visit Vagabond City to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
poetry from Joanna Gilar
I have memories of a picture book from my childhood—a book of burnished browns and pale blues, moss green and dark grays telling the sorrowful tale of the selkie tricked into a land-locked life of wife and mother. As with many children’s stories and tales of old, the song of the narrative was a single note about a creature kept from sea through human trickery. The book left an indelible impression, so it’s no surprise that I find myself, as an adult, looping back to the legend of the selkie, seeking out poems and stories that explore the emotional depths of the legend. Gilar’s ‘Selkie’s Return’ evokes the same colors of my childhood impressions, the stretch of dark sky, the green “as the fronds of sand drunk / sealife marking their / inheritance of hallowed health.” In her poem, there’s the exquisite joy of returning to the sea, but also the complicated notes of love for a human-existence, for the love of child and partner. The satisfying fulfillment of a simple tale into a more realistic and complicated song; each line heartbreaking and wonderful.
Visit Fair Folk to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
By Sunshine, By Moonlight
art from Ken Wong
I’m going to try something new and highlight some artwork by Ken Wong instead of something literary today. If you’re in need of inspiration, or if you just want to take a break from the world for a moment, step into a place that is sometimes dark, sometimes impossible, mythical, dream-like, or bright.
If you want something with dark tones, and vivid, surreal imagery, take the path by moonlight. My personal favourites are Mistaken Identity and Dragon, both evoking some visceral emotion, melancholy, contemplation, the unwavering unknown. If you want something brighter, whimsical, dynamic, and sometimes pastel body-horror-esque, then take the path by sunshine. Three Wishes, Fly by Night, and The Mock Turtle’s Story are illustrations with their own stories, the kind of art that hints at an entire world beyond the frame. There’s something immensely captivating about the contrast between the shadows in Osiris, the sensation of angst against the light, the sprouting of colour and newness. Uncertainty and clarity sat side by side, intermingled into the same piece.
So step inside, take a look around. Let your mind wander into myth, into animated daydreams.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
In the Queer Utopia
poetry from Alain Ginsberg
After just reading the title ‘In the Queer Utopia,’ I was ready to love this poem by Alain Ginsberg (one of three incredible pieces up at Metatron) and after finishing the poem itself I’m more transformed than I could have hoped. It is a poem brimming hope within bone-deep sadness—there is something forever radical when it comes to dreaming of a better future, particularly as we watch the wanton destruction of what little progress we’ve made. ‘In the Queer Utopia’ outlines a world without the everyday violence and death that undergirds wide swaths of the queer community, and with such a simple premise Ginsberg finds a dizzying lyricism that could easily drown the heart:
and in this future the graveyards get so big
and green and beautiful, we grow empty caskets in the soft earth
filled with dead names
Sit with this poem. Wonder at its hope. Take just one step to make it a reality. Then another.
Visit Metatron to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
from Barbie Chang
poetry from Victoria Chang
Since her inception, Barbie has been a conduit for our childhood dreams. Her myriad number of variations and professions aim to show us her versatility, but more importantly, her relatability. But she’s not entirely a blank canvas since she’s deeply American, and this is what brings conflict to Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang series (set to be published by Copper Canyon later this year) in general, with the icon used to interrogate the American Dream and the goal of assimilation.
In ‘Barbie Chang’s Mother Made Her,’ I love how the emotional conflict of not being accepted by her peers becomes tangible: “Barbie Chang is hopeful / hippingly so to be / included in the Circle smiling with a / mouthful of bees that / look from afar like braces.” Yet even though the speaker’s anxiety has now become a physical ailment, she’s masked enough so onlookers might not notice. Putting on a brave face is something that femmes know maybe too well. In the larger context of Barbie, she’s always publicly presentable, but who knows what’s hiding behind her teeth? These subtle moves force us to see the icon in a different light, to take in more of her than just the surface.
Chang also creates these staggering lines that run into the next, creating a kind of forward momentum that matches the anxiety of the speaker and the conflict at large: “there / is war even here there is terror land to / grab people to claim / millions of bodies rushing out of homes / like smoked bees.” These ending moments bring us outward in scope: if America here is no dreamhouse, we’re lead to question if it ever was, and for whom. Even the glorious dreamhouse has a choking hazard, its unwanted pieces liable to get stuck in our bodies until we have to push them out. Chang setting us on shaking ground allows us to question how to make it sturdier, and in our current climate, I wonder what would happen if we gathered some new architects.
Visit At Length to read the poem (and the rest of the Barbie Chang suite).
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse