By Mian Mian
Back Bay Books, 224 pp., $13.95
The fact that Candy was banned by the Chinese government, just four months after publication, is not what sets Mian Mian's first novel apart from its peers. It is not the world of wanton sexual encounters and the excesses of narcotics and alcohol that break her book from tradition. Nor is it the community of prostitutes, pimps, dealers and addicts that introduces readers to some hidden face of China. In many ways, while the book does offer thinly didactic interpretations of post-Mao China that might otherwise go unnoticed by the rest of the world, Mian Mian's semi-autobiographical novel does not claim to depict any essential portrayal of modern China or it's people. The iconoclastic declaration in Candy is the way it prioritizes personal perception over the collective and offers readers a voice that is so individualistic and self-conscious, it becomes a separate character unto itself.
The crux of the action in Candy takes place between Shanghai and the radically evolving southern region of Shenzhen, which was proclaimed a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1980, when Deng Xiaoping began economic reforms by designating certain areas "free of state control." Minimal state control meant that new industries could enter the region, shifting the economy and bringing along an influx of money and influence from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the West. Hong, the narrator of Candy, like many young people in her generation, heads to "the south" to explore new ways of life outside of the constraints of her hometown. But the fundamental drive behind her search for "freedom" is Hong's aim to escape the ghost of her friend's suicide.
One rainy afternoon, the news of Lingzi's death reached our school. People said that her parents had gone out one day, and a boy had taken advantage of their absence. He had brought Lingzi a bouquet of fresh flowers. This was 1986, and there were only two flower stands in all of Shanghai, both newly opened. That night, Lingzi slashed her wrists in the bathroom of her family's apartment. People said that she died standing.
This was the beginning of my wasted youth. After that winter, Lingzi's lilting laughter would constantly trail behind me, pursuing me as I fled headlong into a boundless darkness.
What we follow throughout the rest of the novel is an interwoven narrative inflected with flashbacks, poems, character studies and song lyrics that document the spill of the young narrator into the bars, brothels and sleepless streets of the south. The story is ostensibly organized into letters of the alphabet and subcategories of numbers, but is necessarily fractured and confused by the way Mian Mian subjectively inserts herself into the narrative, as if to remind the reader that there is a separation between the narrator and the author.
I am a ditch where water has collected after the rain, she writes. My name is Mian Mian, and this story is not the story of my life. My life story will have to wait until I can write nakedly. That's my dream. Right now my writing just falls apart.
Right now the real story has everything to do with my writing, and nothing to do with my readers. My CD player is always spinning around, like inexhaustible hope. My ears bring me this perfect world. Perfection has always been in the present. This remembered world is mine, I possess it, and it is everything to me.
Right now it's early in the morning, on April 21, 1999, and the only thing that's clear in this shattered piece of candy is the poem I received last night, in a note he left for me. It has a sweet name, "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
While Mian Mian might be a cultural icon to the young generation of China--working as an independent party promoter and columnist for various high-end fashion magazines, with a cult following among the youth who see themselves in her work--her novel does not claim to represent anything more than one girl's coming-of-age story in a time where history faces off with a changing society and a whole generation must learn new ways to survive. Just as the narrator realizes toward the end of the novel, "Writing is just something a person might do. There is no absolute truth or falseness, and writing can't guarantee my safety." Mian Mian considers her book an exploration of freedom and control, where depression, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and suicide are at once symptoms of and antidotes for the struggle to find an "authentic self."