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.
Yale University Press