37. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Published in 2008 by Chatto & Windus.

Longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Translated from the Chinese by Rebecca Morris, with revisions by Pamela Casey.

“You can check any Chinese dictionary, there’s no word for romance. We say ‘Lo Man’, copying the English pronunciation. What the fuck use was a word like romance to me, anyway? There wasn’t much of it about in China, and Beijing was the least romantic place in the whole universe.”

Fenfang is, all things considered, probably not the kind of girl a good boy would take home to his mother. After all, she skipped out on her staid household in Ginger Hill Village, at the tender age of seventeen, for a taste of life in Beijing. When we meet her at the slightly more inured state of twenty-one, she has cast her luck in the world of acting, filling out a form that shows a list of her accomplishments and defining characteristics in stark, unsatisfying relief. Cast in a series of semi-regular but anonymous roles, she soon tires of a career built on playing extras, and longs for what she terms “the shiny things in life”. When advice on a new career path is offered from an unlikely source, Fenfang balks, not thinking herself clever or experienced enough for the challenge. Faced with the monotony of her hand-to-mouth, cramped existence, however, she embarks on a project that might well alter the course of her cockroach and ramen-populated Beijing existence.

For the best chances of success, if 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth were entered in an Olympic sporting event, I’d say it merits inclusion in the hundred metre sprint. Here is a novel ideal for those who favour the fast, vaguely dirty, edifying read: an elevator tryst in terms of fiction, to be sure, but one that will leave you thoughtful, with a few other ideas for follow-up titles. The storyline is neatly chopped into the twenty aforementioned segments, each tasting like tart, indulgent sections of orange, or, if you prefer, twenty separate pulls on an extra-long clove cigarette. This form suits the tale being told: longer chapters, plump with detail and context, would lend themselves to the depiction of a full life, but the reader isn’t meant to see the protagonist that long. We catch glimpses of her in what she reveals, and how she reveals it — with irrepressibly funny, often-exasperating singularity.

Just how singular is the singularity of Fenfang’s personality, though? Certainly, she seems erratic, by turns impetuously in love and out of sorts with Beijing’s electric charms. On the one hand, her perspective could, one surmises, be not dissimilar to that of any nomadic, headstrong teenager, eager to cut ties with a provincial upbringing, falling over themselves in the giddy gaucheries of self-discovery.

On the other hand, there is the distinct impression, conveyed by the author’s canny sleights-of-hand and sensitive immersion in the world of her leading lady, that we want no other narrator but Fenfang on this journey. We become interested in her hilarious struggles with surprising expediency. Indeed, her struggles become hilarious because of the manner in which she documents them, with a child’s o-faced wonder and an old woman’s absurdist resolve. For instance, she describes the saga of cockroach infestation as though recollecting the hues a pretty, if unsanitary portrait — and the results are side-splittingly funny.

“I’ve been blessed with cockroaches in every place I’ve lived in Beijing, but it was in the Chinese Rose Garden that I was truly anointed. My apartment was their Mecca. […] They lingered on the rims of cups, sat in my rice cooker pondering the meaning of life. The thing about my cockroaches, they were very cinematic, like the birds in that Alfred Hitchcock film. I was under constant attack.”

Through Fenfang’s eyes, the reader is able to experience Beijing as it time-lapses across a decade. Referring to herself several times as a mere peasant, she finds an array of manners no more refined than the behaviour to which she was accustomed in the sweet potato fields of home. In fact, her brief New Years’ visit to her parents provides a glimpse of more kindness than she receives at the hands of brusque police officers, supercilious old crones, vengeful ex-boyfriends and leering, patronizing producers. The irony is not lost in Guo’s unblinking prose: in many ways, communist corridors of draconian morality prevent Fenfang from embracing the freedom she has travelled so far to savour. Beijing is a city open to the young adventuress, to be certain, but its rapidly-morphing ideals and jumbled cultural syncretism throw up a gauntlet of obstacles.

While hardly a novel that could champion a sexual revolution, the writer gives Fenfang the reins of autonomy in choosing her lovers. Whether our protagonist does so with discernment or not is for the reader to discover; what is worth remarking upon is that she makes her own choices. Her relationships with two markedly different men are equally telling: Xiaolin, the long-term lover who proves himself capable of literally shattering acts, and Ben, the Ph.D candidate who inveigles his way into her affections with an ailing scarlet lily. From these romantic affairs, what is perhaps most encouraging is the manner in which the narrator glimpses herself, how she perceives the tenuous yet resolute tendrils of growth that emerge from loving and making related messes.

We may not be able to trust in the wisdom of this chronicler’s every act, but any person who has longed to be away from what stifles them can trust this unlikely heroine’s hunger for escape. “I was 17 when I left that shithole for good,” she reports, without a smudge of shame. “Thank you, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. Everything about that day is so vivid still: the stretch of the sky, the pull of the wind, the endless, tangled fields, the silent little village and how it burnt itself into my heart as I ran.”

Perhaps Fenfang and her curiously-composed story aren’t allowed enough screen time to win a permanent place in the reader’s heart. Those who prefer meatier, gently undulating parables will be stung by the fictive taxi ride that 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth represents. The tale is like a chance encounter on a train platform, an hour’s recollection over fennel dumplings at some fantastically-named dive of a restaurant. It’s easy enough to lose in one’s memory, but for stories like these, all it takes is a precise plume of smoke, a disastrous flirtation with a cockroach or a glance at a Tennessee Williams play to send the reminders flooding back. Here’s to girls who seize their uncertain futures through whatever means necessary: because they don’t much fancy meeting the mothers of those good boys, anyway.