Guo Xiaolu, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (2009)

Fengfang is a feisty, determined girl from a backward village in China. At 17 she is bored to death by the poverty and lack of perspectives there, so she decides to leave her family and make it as an actress in Beijing. One dead-end job after another, one apartment after another, one boyfriend after another, Fengfang never quite loses hope when reality turns out quite different from her dreams. She becomes the 6787th extra in television series and movies. Her life is empty and aloof, yet she always keeps yearning for something higher and deeper.

It’s a very realist (and often comical) book about “postmodern” life of so many young people in Beijing, and the city is beautifully captured. Guo has the knack to get the people and atmosphere, smells and temperatures just right. Her writing is visual and flows like a breeze, navigating between movie and literature references, pop culture and slang. Reading it was like a bittersweet moment of nostalgia for me, and for that I’m really grateful.

Yet it was difficult for me to relate to Fengfang, because she’s so young and superficial in some ways. She reminded me of so many young ambitious, self-centered people I’ve come across who lived at the turn of the century in Beijing, hanging out with arty people and foreign language students in bars. In life as in fiction, I never really could make friends with girls like Fengfang. And as a matter of fact Fengfang has very few friends indeed. The thing is, despite her melancholy I’m never worried for her, because I’m sure she will always find a way to survive.

Her audacity and tenacity make her tough, she never dwells too long on her problems and emotions and prefers turning to cynicism. Of course, that’s very comprehensible, not to mention plausible, at a person’s level to react this way, but at the same time in a novel it puts the reader at a distance, and sometimes you just want to shake Fengfang and say: “grow up!”

We as readers feel a poignancy in being witness to the fast pace of a big city changing every day, with buildings being torn down and things moving on, but there’s no nostalgia in Fengfang, only an urgency to keep up with the pace.

“Everything around me was changing so fast – my apartment block, the local shops, the alleys, the roads, the subway lines. Beijing was moving forwards like an express train, but my life was going nowhere….I had to do something….so I could match this fast-moving city,” says Fenfang.

Not so sure I want to join the whole race… When the book ends at the Jazz Ya, and Guo adds: “It was the only old bar left on Sanlitun Bar Street after they demolished the whole area.” I just kept mourning the places I knew that no longer exist.

PS. Fiction writers has a great review here highlighting the strengths and weakness of this book. Check it out!

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