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584,482 Characters to Go

murrayjames

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Today I finished reading the novel 《熊猫》 by 棉棉.

 

The novel consists mostly of casual nighttime conversations between attractive young people in Shanghai. Sex, love, and infidelity are frequent conversation topics, popping up every few pages. There are occasional monologues on random subjects, like eating pigs and the social harms of television.

 

The plot and structure of 《熊猫》 are unconventional. There are the trappings of a plot: main characters, recurring settings, interpersonal relationships and conflicts. But not much happens. Characters talk repeatedly about sex—how often they have it, what kind of people they have it with, etc. While some arguments arise from this, the characters themselves do not change. The death of a main character is mentioned several times, but the circumstances surrounding the death go unexplained. Most of the main characters in the novel are shallow, and it is difficult to see what motivates them. The novel is divided sequentially into chapters, but these chapter divisions seem arbitrary, and the story does not progress.

 

《熊猫》 reminds me of the writing of Bret Easton Ellis. It is a book full of beautiful, rich, young characters having superficial conversations in a consequence-free world. Unfortunately, 《熊猫》 is less stylized, less seductive, and more banal than Ellis’s novels are.

 

A number of the characters in 《熊猫》 are named after actual people. The Shanghai jazz musicians mentioned in the novel are people I know in real life! 棉棉 also references herself at numerous points in the story.

 

I decided to read 《熊猫》 after @Lu listed it in the “What are the first 10 books you read” thread. I found the language of the novel easy to understand, especially compared with the last novel I read, 余华’s 《在细雨中呼喊》. Most of 《熊猫》 is dialogue, which keeps the difficulty low.

 

Link to 《熊猫》:
https://www.kanunu8.com/book3/7951/
 
Some statistics:
Characters read this year: 415,518
Characters left to read this year: 584,482
Percent of goal completed: 41.6% 
  
List of things read:
《三八节有感》by 丁玲   (2,370 characters)
《我在霞村的时候》by 丁玲   (10,754 characters)
《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》by 毛泽东   (18,276 characters)
《自杀日记》by 丁玲   (4,567 characters)
《我没有自己的名字》by 余华   (8,416 characters)
《手》by 萧红   (7,477 characters)
《牛》by 沈从文   (8,097 characters) 
《彭德怀速写》by 丁玲   (693 characters)
《我怎样飞向了自由的天地》by 丁玲   (2,176 characters)
《IBM Cloud文档:Personality Insights》 by IBM   (25,098 characters)
《夜》by 丁玲   (4,218 characters)
《虎雏》by 沈从文   (46,945 characters)
《在巴黎大戏院》 by 施蛰存   (6,181 characters)
《分析Sonny Stitt即兴与演奏特点——以专辑《Only the Blues》中曲目 《Blues for Bags》为例》   (5,483 characters)
《一个女剧院的生活》 by 沈从文   (61,154 characters) 
《致银河》 by 王小波   (17,715 characters) 
《在细雨中呼喊》 by 余华   (132,769 characters)
《熊猫》 by 棉棉   (53,129 characters)



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Glad I inspired you, sorry to hear you appear not to be too enthousiastic about the book. And so cool that you actually knew a few of the characters!

There actually is a real plot, in between all the hanging around and talking about nothing:

Spoiler

There is this story that supposedly tests whether someone is a psychopath. The story goes like this: at her mother's funeral, a woman meets a man with whom she spends a steamy night. But she doesn't get his contact details. A week later, the woman kills her sister. Why? Many people will answer something like: the woman found out that her sister was sleeping with the man. A psychopath will answer: the woman is hoping she will meet the man again at her sister's funeral.

This is what may have happened to the younger sister in this story: older sister killed her to see the man again she met at her aunt's funeral.

However, the real main character is the city of Shanghai and modern life in Shanghai. The footnotes add a lot of background scenery, with some philosophical musings thrown in too. I would not call this novel banal.

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murrayjames

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I figured the murder had something to do with…

 

Spoiler

…the older sister. The tip-off was the two scenes where the older sister talked to the police. Those scenes are the only parts in the book that attempt to address the consequences of the younger sister’s death, and they suggest the police view the older sister as a suspect.

 

Near the end of the book, Lino asks the two sisters about the hypothetical sororicide scenario directly, and films their answers. The younger sister answers that a sister murders the other out of jealous revenge. The older sister answers that a sister murders the other because she wants a sexual climax from a stranger at a funeral; the stranger does not even have to be the man from the first funeral.

 

姐姐:姐姐并没有爱上那个男人,姐姐只是想再要一次那样的高xdx潮。可以是另外一个男人。

妹妹:哎,你不会来杀我吧?

Lino:猜对这个答案的人,有职业连环杀手的倾向。

Lino继续在拍。

 

When I finished the book, it was not clear to me that the younger sister’s murder was carried out this way. The sister admitted, on camera, that a psychopath would murder her own sister for an orgasm with a stranger, then did exactly that later that night? I now see that given the frequent references to funerals, and the lack of reference to alternate possibilities in the narrative, that probably is what happened.

 

There is another thing regarding this death that impeded my appreciation of the novel. On my reading, the book is uninterested in the moral and psychological questions related to the death of a main character. But why? These questions are among the most important and interesting questions that literature addresses.

 

The electronic version of 《熊猫》 that I read did not contain footnotes. I wonder what I missed, and if having footnotes would have changed my opinion of the novel. I appreciated some of the creative formal decisions and rhythm of the book, like having short, crisp dialogue scenes set against long, single-paragraph digressions. Footnotes would have added another dimension to that. In the end, it was not the structure of the novel, but the subject matter and dialogue, that I found banal.

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Errm, just in case you run out of books to read... these are the books I set aside for the First Chapter project (will get to it as soon as I've finished reviewing all the things I bought during the recent online shopping spree lol)

IMG_20190624_142554.thumb.jpg.986ad2bc88bf76755e07afaa0c397a8a.jpg

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murrayjames

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Most of these books are on my extended reading list! I haven’t forgot about 《三体》 or 《城南旧事》, either. Next novels for me are 《1988:我想和这个世界谈谈》, 《第七天》, 《家》,  and 《半生缘》. 莫言’s novels are still beyond my current level, though I will read his novella 《牛》later this year.

 

By “recent online shopping spree” you mean 618? Where did you buy your books?

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《红高粱》 should be easy. You've watched the film (directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Jiang Wen and Gong Li) I presume?

 

Yeah, 618. I bought my books on JD.com.

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3 hours ago, murrayjames said:

莫言’s novels are still beyond my current level, though

I'm not sure this is true based on some of the things you have already read.

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12 hours ago, murrayjames said:

The electronic version of 《熊猫》 that I read did not contain footnotes.

Then you really missed out. I don't know if the footnotes would have changed your opinion on the book as a whole, but at the time there was at least one reader who declared that his favourite book was the footnotes of 熊猫. If I were Mian Mian I would not be pleased that the book was sold without the footnotes.

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Enjoyment tip: Read H. M. Pulham, Esquire: A Novel by John P. Marquand before reading 《半生缘》.  This was used as a basis for the story's concept and setup, but it is quite interesting to see how it was then adapted and changed into a historical Chinese context.

 

Also, find something really really happy to read afterwards :)

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17 hours ago, Publius said:

Errm, just in case you run out of books to read... these are the books I set aside for the First Chapter project

 

Oh, wow, very much looking forward to the 格非.  I've only read (but really enjoyed) him in English; where does he fall on the difficulty scale?

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12 minutes ago, corian said:

where does he fall on the difficulty scale?

Hard (but still easier than Jin Yong), with fair amount of rare characters, unusual collocations, and literary/historical/cultural references.

 

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murrayjames

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Haven’t seen the 《红高粱》 movie yet, will check it out.

 

18 hours ago, Publius said:

Yeah, 618. I bought my books on JD.com.

 

Ha! 京东 has been in my head all month long because of this advertisement, which seems to play in every elevator in Chengdu:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZmi1fByuqQ

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murrayjames

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16 hours ago, imron said:

I'm not sure this is true based on some of the things you have already read.

 

OK, I will try! 莫言 and 张爱玲 are the authors I really want to read; I’ve been holding off because I thought I wasn’t ready. Where is a good place to start with 莫言, difficulty-wise? 《红高粱》?

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murrayjames

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14 hours ago, Lu said:

Then you really missed out. I don't know if the footnotes would have changed your opinion on the book as a whole, but at the time there was at least one reader who declared that his favourite book was the footnotes of 熊猫. If I were Mian Mian I would not be pleased that the book was sold without the footnotes.

 

The electronic version of 《熊猫》 I read was an online .txt rip, not an officially published e-version. Curious what was in those footnotes.

 

Footnotes and endnotes in a book are interesting, not just because the content of the notes, but also because of what notes do to the reader, how they break up narrative flow, how they force eyeballs and concentration to leave the body text momentarily for some other text that might amplify the narrative or be ancillary to it or be a fascinating digression or something altogether unnecessary. A few years ago I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a book whose endnotes have footnotes, in hardcover. Halfway through the book I realized that the act of flipping pages—one page at a time, or to a page at the end of the book and back again—was as important (and as arbitrary) as the act of scanning text with the eye line-by-line. It was a powerful moment when I realized how form could be used, even in traditional media (e.g., a physical book), to mount a conceptual challenge against the modern world.

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2 hours ago, murrayjames said:

Where is a good place to start with 莫言, difficulty-wise? 《红高粱》?

The only book I've read of his was 《蛙》and it didn't stand out as particularly difficult.  Maybe a bit more so than 余华, but not by much.

 

If you've read a number of 余华's novels you shouldn't find it that difficult to get in to - it is more accessible that something like《在细雨中呼喊》。

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I read one short story by Mo Yan once and it was chengyu upon chengyu upon chengyu. I had read two full novels at the time and judged Mo Yan insurmountably difficult. I haven't tried him since. I'd say give it a try, but make a plan B in case your experience is like mine.

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