Banned in Beijing
Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.
Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death
For as much as Americans love bootlegged music and movies, not many novels here get sold on street corners or swapped over the Internet. It’s a shame, because it says something about our country and where art stands in it. And we bootleg them for the wrong reasons anyway: to save money, not to hear an unexpected point of view or a caustic take on authority. But it doesn’t really matter, because here if a book about hacking the Xbox or one on our president the Fortunate Son is too hot for a mainstream publisher, someone else will always pick it up, either to capitalize on the notoriety or just to be a thorn in someone’s side.
In America, downloaded or otherwise pirated music, software, and movies are bought because it’s cheaper than paying for the real thing. In China, it’s the only way to get the product. Mian Mian’s novel Candy, a rock-and-roll drug addict love story, was banned by the government four months after it was first published but soon pirated versions (I’ve read there are up to eight different ones) appeared on the street and flourished.
Candy is the deeply personal story of Hong, a confused, passionate, and muddled Chinese girl who breaks away from her staid upbringing and alternates between hanging out in Shanghai and Shenzen, which the translator’s note says is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Being a SEZ, there has been a considerable “relaxation of state control and the relative freedom soon created a frontier mentality, and many forms of vice and corruption came to flourish alongside more legitimate private enterprises.” This explains why there are few cultural references to Chinese authority and Communism in the book. It very nearly could be any city where teenagers get stoned, dance till the morning, sleep with just-met strangers, and complain how there is nothing to do and that their city is dying, or even dead already. But of course, it’s not anywhere—it’s China.
Soon Hong and her boyfriend, a musician named Saining, are smack addicts living among prostitutes and thieves, and Hong is fighting to stay in love with him, as he drifts away from her. At heart, Candy is an optimistic and emotionally told love story, though it’s easy to see it only as a depraved tale of loners and trash. Looking deeper, it becomes clear, however, that Hong is no saint among sinners, and with the wasted debris of misspent lives swirling around her, this contradiction emerges the book’s strength. In a touching metaphor for the confusion Hong faces, the author writes:
I asked a Spaniard and a Hungarian to speak to me in their native languages at the same time, one in each ear. I said, “You can say anything you want, but just start talking!” Heads gracefully extended, and with serious expressions on their faces, they began speaking unbroken streams of words. One on my left, and one on my right.”
Mian Mian’s writing is Kerouac, Selby, and Ballard. She creates as if she were constructing a collage. At times it’s narrative and forward, as the narrator gives short sketches of the prostitutes in the hotel she’s staying at. At other times, it’s staccato and manic, making leaps in logic that are hauntingly disjointed. When her lover Saining returns to her, she writes, “I reflected ruefully and Valentine’s Day and I weren’t meant for each other. But I could still secretly imagine all sorts of things. Men treated me like shit; I couldn’t think of myself as a piece of shit, though. I imagined an airplane parked in front of my house, and a man disembarked and said he would be a good friend to me, a lover.” Briefly, toward the end, we are given a series of startlingly poetic Russell Edson-like paragraphs, more beautiful than even our narrator’s own youthful romanticism and love.
Mian Mian has a style that is disjointed and disruptive, but which pierces to the center of the personal. She writes with the best of the confessionals, taking a simple story and infusing it with layers of perspective and points of view. It’s like a Chuck Close mosaic portrait: if you zero in, you see the gorgeous singular objects, each whole and sustainable, and when you pull back a distance, you perceive the amazing way the objects interlock.
The author’s spell breaks a little, however, when she becomes too self-aware and talks about literary fame in China, calling it “a crock of shit! Other people pick out the most searing elements . . . and turn them into badges. Then they pin them on their own crap, and it makes them rich and famous.”
We can only hope that the spirited storyteller was not concerning herself with how her writing would be appropriated by others, to be funneled back out as a weaker and fraudulent concoction, when she wrote Candy. The book rings true, but this brief passage suggests too much consciousness and shock for shock, like a gratuitously violent Oliver Stone movie. I can only think Mian Mian did not succumb to this because of the so-little money had from doing so: “. . . the most you could make from a story was a thousand yuan, and after a book came out, it was only good for a few thousand more because it would soon be pirated.”
While Candy is about coming to terms and dealing with personal freedom, the fact that it’s set in powerfully oppressive China—where each sex act described, every swear hurled, every mention of AIDS carries extra weight—makes you mindful that it’s also about political freedom. Western mores, music, movies, and drugs have found their way into the world of a person like Hong, and how she and the other characters handle this heady mix makes for a story that is atrocious, naïve, daring and wonderful. It’s the old cliché—a kid in a candy store—writ large and loud, with brash observations and a lush and effective pastiche of styles.