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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The strange open ending of Ge Fei's The Invisibility Cloak

Ge Fei's novel (2012, English tr. 2016) The Invisibility Cloak is an entertaining read top to bottom (only 120 pp.), presenting a smart portrait of the narrator, a 40-something Beijing man who makes a modest living putting together super-high-end audio systems for a private clientele, some of them business people among the newly wealthy in China and some academics, whom the narrator (Cui?) scorns. It's fun (at least for me) to read about the extremely expensive components and the extraordinary steps the audiophiles take to get the best possible sound - sometimes to listen to pretty trashy music, after all. This seems like a well-thought-out account of life in contemporary China, where there's always the collision between extraordinary wealth and peasant-like poverty and where amid the contemporary flash and gizmos there's still a persistent belief in superstitions and omens (and perhaps even the devotion to hifi vacuum-tube phonics represents a form of ancestor worship). The story is pretty simple and concerns the narrator's getting into financial straits and taking on a new client, a gangster, who wants the most expensive hifi system in the world. Predictably, the gangster doesn't pay his bills, which leads the narrator to try to collect the money owed to him and eventually to establish a relationship with the gangster's girlfriend/ex-wife - not clear. Like too many novels, however, this one doesn't really build to a point, just sets up a series of episodes and ends with the narrator in the relationship w/ the gangster's ex. (The gangster supposedly can at times where an eponymous "invisibility cloak," which may explain his disappearance toward the end of the novel - w/ the hovering threat that he could re-appear and take vengeance on the narrator. Spoiler: He does not reappear.) There's not much of a point to the story, nor does it click the way a well-made crime novel does or at least should; the plot is loose and episodic rather than organic and directed. The heart of the matter may be the contempt the narrator holds for academics (and the author is one), who engage in endless abstract discussions about whether the government and culture of China is on the verge of collapse or whether China leads the world economy (sometime they hold both views at the same time); at the end, the narrator interrupts one such discussion as he installs a system for a client and tells them: Life is pretty good. What a strange conclusion; is this something that Ge Fei (a pseudonym) feels forced to build in as his novel's conclusion in order to publish in China and maintain his academic standing? Are we meant to see an irony behind those words, which the Chinese censors may overlook?

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