Claire at Kiss a Cloud recently called Eileen Chang’s stories “anti-love” stories, and I think that is an apt description. Eileen Chang, who wrote in the 1940s, captured relationships in her stories, and her perspective is unfailing bitter. These stories do not, for the most part, have happy endings, even when the man and the woman do get together. I loved the insights into Chinese culture, but that said, my favorite story of the collection (“Sealed Off”) was one that was more universal in setting, emotion, and culture. In fact, I loved it and wish to add it to the “great short stories” hall of fame.
I read the copy of Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang, published by NYRB; there are a total of four novellas1 and two stories.
I’ll start with the story that I loved. In “Sealed Off,” a lonely but capable Wu Cuiyuan sits on a bus, utterly bored with life and wishing someone would notice her. Lu Zongzhen, self-important accountant also sits on the bus, criticizing those around him. For unnamed political reasons, the bus is stopped and unable to continue on its route. Lu Zongzhen wants to avoid talking to an acquaintance, so he begins talking to Wu Cuiyuan during the bus stoppage.
“Sealed Off” is a great story for many of the same reasons that I found “The Student,” by Anton Chekhov a great short story almost two years ago. If Chang’s story has any failings it is that it is not quite succinct enough in capturing the two characters. (I wanted it to focus on Cuiyuan a bit more than on the unpleasant man, but I realize it it is unfair of me to want it to be different.) But that said, it captures the moments on the bus so completely and so realistically that at moments I almost doubted that it is fiction. I also loved how it captured the two characters – both Cuiyuan and Zhogzhen – during their conversation. Chang switched back and forth between their thoughts, and in some respects, that made it a more complicated story than Chekhov’s. (Chekhov’s story was three pages; this was fourteen.) Finally, I loved the emotional progress of the story; I thought it was masterfully done. I felt Cuiyuan was the main character in this, and I most liked her tragic emotional realization at the end. I also loved the parallels of the bus being “sealed off” and the characters’ feelings being sealed up. In short, “Sealed Off” pulled me in and got me emotionally involved in the story.
“Love in a Fallen City” was probably my next favorite, although, as a novella, I struggle to place it. I think I struggle with novellas a little. Novellas are a little too short to really sink into, but as stories they are too complicated: they have too much back story, too many characters, and so forth. Nevertheless, I felt I learned a bit about Chinese history and culture, so that made it interesting to me. Sixth Sister, Bai Luisu, has finally been widowed: her abusive husband that she left seven years previous has died. When she meets Fan Luiyuan, a prospective husband for a younger sister, it becomes clear that he and she have struck up a friendship. As she meets with him in Hong Kong, her own position and what she had considered their mutual love is called in to question. She has been used. There are some satisfying twists, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history in Hong Kong. In the end, this story, as with “Sealed Off” was one about dissatisfaction: love only leads to disappointment. Even when you “win,” you lose.
Such was the feeling from the other stories in the volume. “Aloeswood Incense” (a novella) was about a young girl joining her aunt in society, only to be used. “Red Rose, White Rose” (a novella) was about a man’s relationships with his girlfriends, wife, and mistress. “Jasimine Tea” (a story) was about an unsuccessful man’s relationship with the only friend who is nice to him. Each story captures a sense of the overwhelming hopelessness of finding joy in life through relationships.
But that, ironically, is not to say that reading Eileen Chang was depressing. Rather, I loved her straight-forward way of description. I enjoyed the magical way she introduced some of the stories:
First, pour yourself a cup of tea, but be careful – it’s hot! Blow on it gently. In the tea’s curling steam you can see . . . a Hong Kong public bus on a paved road, slowly driving down a hill. (page 79, “Jasmine Tea”)
Although Chang won’t be a favorite for me, I really enjoyed her storytelling style, and I’m glad for the time I got to spend in Hong Kong and Shanghai. This was therefore an appropriate book for inclusion for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Asia.
- I read three of them; I skipped the novella “The Golden Cangue” because after starting it about three times, I still could not get into it at all. ↩