Three days ago, I hit up the People’s Literature Publishing House booth at the Beijing International Book Fair. One of PR’s best friends and industry contacts was on duty, and I stopped by to pick up a book and see how the work we’d done for them had come out. By the way, she said, Ge Fei has a new book out with us called The Invisibility Cloak. I asked her what she thought. She didn’t like it. Why not? A lot of unresolved suspense, she said, and it was too ambiguous. You didn’t know what to feel about it. But the writing was mature. Bells ringing dimly in my back brain, I took a copy. We long ago discovered that it often takes a negative review from her to spark our interest. By yesterday night, I had chewed through all one hundred eighty-eight pages, a pace I admit to not having reached since high school.
The story of The Invisibility Cloak is told by its protagonist, the middle-aged bachelor Mr. Cui. He is a local Beijinger and an audio technician, a job that only just keeps him in shoe leather but allows him to work with what he loves: music, and the electronic machines that reproduce it. The amplifiers, CD decks, sound tubes and transmitters he collects, and which represent the vast majority of his savings, are the only companions that stay with him. His sister and her “bastard of a husband” are evicting him from his mother’s old apartment; his wife, whom he continues to love, slept around and has divorced him; his wealthy clients treat him the way all technicians are treated in China; and his best friend, the factory owner Jiang Songping, who climbed out of the poverty they both grew up in, quickly forgets debts of gratitude he once promised to repay. Mr. Cui is a man who survives – barely – by not asking too many questions, taking abuse and being fiercely in love with his profession.
Things change, however, when Mr. Cui is referred by Jiang Songping to another ultra-rich client who wants to order “the best sound system in the world.” Songping warns his friend that the client, Ding Caichen, is not quite right; in fact, there is something downright scary about him. The referral is lost for several months as Mr. Cui exhausts himself dealing with his family; when he finally starts to work on it, he decides to put all the best equipment he has, including amplifiers he’s saved for twelve years, into the job. Negotiations and setup go smoothly, and Ding Caichen wires Mr. Cui the first third of his sizable fee exactly on time. Yet Jiang Songping turns out to be right: once the system is installed in Ding Caichen’s massive villa in the far suburbs, the man who seems to “have experienced terrible pain, and become addicted to it” begins to show a darker and more dangerous side. Then he is late with the rest of the payment, and the desperate and impoverished Mr. Cui is forced to visit the villa again, where he is confronted by as many brutal questions as answers.
The plot of this brief story, which mimics human memory in the way it wanders and doubles back through Mr. Cui’s experience, and the unanswered questions at the end make it unlikely this book would be received well by a mainstream Chinese audience. Ample leeway exists for the reader to make his own decisions. Memory and dream are given the weight of meaning by the decisions of an otherwise pragmatic central character, and the short, vignette-style chapter structure lends an element of unreality to a prose style that has shifted from Ge Fei’s early stream-of-consciousness work into a more solid realism. One can see why we pay attention to negative reviews.
Imaginative space is plentiful in the development of both the plot and thematic structures of The Invisibility Cloak. The first-person voice is introspective and personal without being affected, and in particular the presentation of memory and illusion is done to just the right heat – while many writers talk at length about their lives as children in an idyllic old Beijing, most don’t manage as Ge Fei does to be moving without becoming tiresomely sentimental.
There are a few old tropes the story could have done without. The story of Jiang Songping, the smart orphan who pulled himself from simple poverty into incredible wealth and ends up poisoned by his environment is a tired line. Even more disconcerting is the final description of Mr. Cui’s ex-wife, Yufen, who flits between boyfriends after her divorce and is finally seen in Sanlitun with a black man – her inconstancy emphasized through an underscoring of Chinese racism, something Ge Fei’s generation will probably never change. Lastly, the character of Mr. Cui himself, the rootless, hapless male worker who gets cheated on and rolled over because he doesn’t have the courage to stand up, we’ve seen before in Yan Lianke and Wang Shuo.
And yet, I would enjoy translating this novel. The unassuming, down-trodden yet thoroughly competent technician Mr. Cui contrasts beautifully with the hypocritical, overblown professors and CEOs he works with, especially when those contrasts do not necessarily fall in his favor. This especially I would argue is the mark of a master author: that he maintains the reader’s right to judge, and does not protect even the “good guys” from their own inconsistencies. In addition, the eccentricities of sound systems, old Beijing and classical music are depicted in impressive technical detail, thorough background brushwork, making both the characters and setting attractively believable. The spindly, asthmatic mafia boss Ding Caichen is refreshingly horrifying. And the whole narrative is consistently highlighted with streaks of dry humor, which spice the tone and hold the reader’s attention. I’m glad I read it, and if I were I to translate it, I couldn’t see myself getting tired of it easily.