Book Review: The Last Lover by Can Xue

Can Xue is becoming one of my favorite writers. She’s a surreal writer from China, and when I say surreal, I mean, if you imagine Haruki Murakami being a 3/10 in terms of otherworldly content, she’s a 10. Her stories quickly lose sight of reality and enter their own horrific dream worlds. In English, her best-known work is her novel Five Spice Street, but I prefer The Last Lover, winner of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

It starts out simple enough: Joe, a sales manager at a clothing store, wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, has mystical problems of her own, and both Joe’s boss and a customer of his are having issues with spouses and lovers.

Locations repeat, people become animals, ghosts appear, and characters visit cities that are entirely underground. Though most of the characters have overarching stories, most chapters are episodic. Present throughout (and linking everything together) is the theme of love and what it means to these people.

Can Xue’s writing is like a kaleidoscopic dream. And much like dreams, describing it to other people is just boring. You have to read it yourself to experience it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s no matter your tastes, it’s worth checking out.

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A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.