I think what I like most about my NYRB Classics subscription is the adventure of not knowing what to expect in the mail each month. I always know whatever is coming will be quality literature and I can pretty much feel assured I will most likely enjoy each book (certainly some a bit more than others but none so far has been a real dud). I like being exposed to a wide variety of voices and perspectives, but it is always a literary journey that will take me to new and unexplored (in some cases) times and places and into cultures that I am often unfamiliar with. I love broadening my reading horizons So as I try and wrap up this year's remaining books I have already renewed my subscription for 2017 and already look forward to what the new year will bring.
October's NYRB Classics book is Ge Fei's The Invisibility Cloak (originally published as Pi feng and translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse). This is not a rediscovered classic rather it is a contemporary Chinese novel, and the first by Fei translated into English. I certainly hope there will be more to come, and I know a novella is available out there as well and will be looking for it. This might actually even be my first novel by a Chinese author (translated from Chinese that is) I have even read. It's curious sometimes how stories will take a reader by surprise. Sometimes it is the story that you don't expect to find an affinity with that turns out to be the best read (and a story that you think is just on the right side of your comfort zone turns out to be more of an uphill battle).
Who would have thought a novel about a man, described in one of the blurbs as a "likable loser trying to stay afloat"), who builds, sells and installs custom stereo sound systems would be so interesting. And Mr. Cui talks about them in some detail at times, he talks about the kind of music that sounds most beautiful when played on them (classical) . . . he is a true connoisseur of both and has a reputation for his skill in building them. This is his story and he tells it well. So well, it turns out to be a rather gripping page turner that I literally flew through.
"You already know that I build tube amplifiers for a living. If you counted the total number of people in Beijing who still make a living off this racket there wouldn't be more than twenty of us. It's probably the most insignificant industry in China today."
Yet it is this living of his that drives the story. His skill at his profession is what will inform his experiences and his happiness and even his future. In this digital age it is a wonder that Mr. Cui can make a living out of what he does at all. Economics is his downfall, however--he can barely make ends meet. Maybe that is why he is divorced (his mother, who seems quite wise to me, told him his ex, Yufen, was not his best match--to put it bluntly "you're marrying this woman for somebody else"--a rather cryptic remark). And that is definitely why he is living with his sister and her husband, who want him out as soon as possible. He barely makes ends meet, a fortyish man living with relatives who don't want him there, never quite able to let go of his feelings for his ex-wife (he even tries later to call a new girlfriend by Yufen's name--I think you'll just need to read the story to understand all the dynamics here). But the possibility of a big job might just set him on the right track and give him the money for the independence he needs.
It is his best friend from childhood who recommends him to a potentially wealthy client. The money made off the job will give him just enough cash to buy a little cottage he finds and falls in love with. But the client is dangerous, maybe even mafioso. A tragic turn of events (though for whom they are tragic is questionable) will send Mr. Cui's path in an unexpected direction. (That sounds very fortune-cookieish, doesn't it?).
This is a story that can be read superficially (and as Mr. Cui says in the story, he is "the kind of person who likes to let my perceptions float on the surface of things"), but it is deceptively simple, so there is much more to it all. There is something very philosophical about Mr. Cui and his outlook on life. His perception of the world is funny and wise at the same time and he has luck on his side.
Ge Fei's appeal has been compared to Haruki Murakami (whose work I have had only a small taste of and want to read much more of) and other "fabulists of contemporary irreality" if that helps you imagine what reading his work is like. He is definitely one of my good finds this year.