Based on the author’s mid-’90s stay with her Chinese host family, Kaitlin Solomine’s debut novel adapts her experiences on a Fulbright scholarship. Solomine, in the guise of what father Baba and mother Li-Ming nickname Lao (“familiar”) K, dramatizes that couple’s history over the past half-century. Solomine strives to turn these tales about, so that the teller Li-Ming begins the narrative, but Baba about two-thirds of the way takes over — at least by way of his wife’s manipulated perspective.
Lao K prefaces her translation of Li-Ming’s novel of the same title with the editorial admission that “so much of what I’m telling you is already imagined, reconfigured so convex angles are made concave, mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting an uncertain, setting sun.” That sun may stand for the pre-millennial, post-Mao plus-some China, which bulldozed and buried under skyscrapers and ring roads crushes whatever Beijing once boasted or lamented as its byways and hovels. From the start, Li-Ming’s approach reflects Lao K-by way of Solomine’s post-modern reluctance to claim the Chinese outlook as accessible to her own mindset.
Certainly this tamps down
Empire of Glass firmly within our century’s inculcated unease with any hint of “appropriation” or conjuring up of The Other or the Oriental. In one of many footnotes enabling her American voice to comment on the Chinese novel Solomine embeds within Lao K’s English-language artifact, the predicament of transmission from one register and two lives into literary fact as fiction reifies itself. It’s “snugly framed by the padded weight of a fattening diction.”
The narrative spans Baba’s childhood learning his father’s trade of glass-grinding into lenses which, depending on the buyer, may gull or ease his sense of sight. Metaphors multiply, as Li-Ming’s courtship with Baba, re-educated in a rural desolation, conveys her own commitment to channel the occluded and nimble sensibility of Han Shan, the legendary 9th century poet known to us as Cold Mountain. His Daoist-Buddhist leanings tilt him towards the mystic, but his insistent return to the quotidian allows no reader to remain in the clouds. Li-Ming incorporates Cold Mountain, so much that Baba seems secondary to her love for this enigmatic recluse who wrote his verse onto the rocks.
“We inherit the deaths created for us long before.” Even as a teen, soon after the communist victory, Li-Ming looks back to Han Shan, and places her mortal span within whatever stoic wisdom those poems from the Tang dynasty sketch. Her outlook reverts back, despite her youth, to what hints as fate. Her future groom compares her to the swift, the bird which flies “endlessly from the nest, never stopping for years and landing only to breed.” The resulting story-line spins out their family life.
Yet, filtered at the removes of Li-Ming creating in third-person the indirect voice for Baba, then Baba emerging in first person through her imagination, and then Lao K conveying the manuscript through English translation, further mingling embellishment into whatever the real-life hosts of Karine Solomine as a teenager from the coast of Maine told her around twenty years ago, well–so many layers muffle the action. Momentum dwindles. Dullness settles. This assumed lassitude may faithfully express what the novel nods to in letters as confessions or secrets during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This happens mostly off-stage, as the novel strives to capture, rather, the daily grind.
Yet it winds up drawing more attention, especially early on, to Solomine’s effort to create fresh images. “In April, snow arrives: fallen catkin blossoms drifting to earth in a city overpopulated with poplars and willows, too many females of the species lending seeds, expectations unmet.”
Empire of Glass in a previous draft earned awards; this diligent and meticulously rendered style expresses the hothouse invention of the literary milieu within which small presses publish experimental fiction.
Whether this encourages or enervates a patient reader depends on delight or tolerance of this mandarin approach. It can lighten up. Li-Ming’s “cheery-faced” older female friends Lao K describes as “drifting in and out of the apartment like ants, unsuccessfully, to transport a rotting piece of fruit.” It may nod to poesy, as “on lazy Beijing afternoons with dust caught like a yawn between the sun’s fingers.” But as most of the narrative relies on Li-Ming rather than Lao K, these initial, artsy touches dwindle into a quotidian fidelity true to routine. Some strain for effect when Li-Ming takes over.
On a cold autumn night, “moons kissed mirrored reflections on frosted patches beneath gutters.” This angles off a verse from Cold Mountain, but its trajectory skitters. Above the conscripted Baba as he stumbles through a muddled series of jumbled events on the wartime North Korean border, “a fading full moon struggled against dawn, its face patronizing and sullen.” Li-Ming’s in charge, but we hear the tone of Solomine through Lao K. Can the conceit of translation account for this doubling?
Ultimately, in the wake of Tiananmen Square, McDonalds stands as the go-to place to celebrate in Beijing during the stint of Lao K’s stay. By the time the novel-within-a-novel concludes, it’s Starbucks. Solomine chooses not to delve too deeply into Chinese complexity, even as naturally she strives to express the foreignness of the encounter she has had in fact and fiction. Characters from Chinese may or may not be hinted at or defined. Similarly, some romanized terms fail for a reader not acquainted with them to clarify through context. Not all mysteries of this East open to our West.
Solomine keeps at a studied distance despite Lao K’s immersion in China. Solomine acknowledges in the role of Lao K her ineradicable status as an outsider, no matter how intimately she addresses Baba and Li-Ming in their mother tongue. Lao K admits in passing to being suicidal at the age of 16, and the daughter of a mother who succumbed to that choice. Grim determination to not turn away from fate echoes from Cold Mountain. This stoic stance takes over as the narrative progresses, until it’s stubbornly if inevitably left hanging in the choking Beijing air.