cover image Vertical Motion

Vertical Motion

Can Xue, trans. from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Open Letter (Univ. of Nebraska, dist.), $13.95 trade paper (186p) ISBN 978-1-934824-37-5

The animals and plants that figure in Xue's latest are used not only as metaphor but also as omens and characters. "What led to this? Milk. That's right%E2%80%94milk," says the cat who narrates "An Affectionate Companion's Jottings." The flowers of "The Roses at the Hospital" shelter babies as though invested with a secret power. Xue's Kafkaesque world is grounded in reality but infused with an eerie omniscient feeling. In the affecting title story, an unnamed "critter" lives "in the black earth beneath the desert." As hard as it digs, it never reaches the surface. Elsewhere, cockroaches, rats, and other creatures are objects of wonder and/or narrative catalysts. Xue (Five Spice Street) is a natural storyteller; eight of her 13 stories have first-person narrators who share a confidence or a unique observation that draws the reader in. And, like Kafka, Xue often withholds information to pique interest. The traditional stories fare less well; Xue's direct prose lacks psychological complexity and endings don't live up to foreshadowed promises. But at her best, Xue captures the wonder of the natural world and then, with great assurance, steps beyond into something entirely. (Sept.)