A Lover’s Discourse
Grove Press | October 13, 2020
Xiaolu Guo’s 2007 English debut, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers shares a blueprint with her latest novel, A Lover’s Discourse: a young woman arrives in London from China and meets a man, who we expect will teach her what it means to be a “westerner.” But instead, the narrator in A Lover’s Discourse and her partner bond as fellow outsiders. (He’s German and English but grew up in Australia.) They live in unconventional set-ups, use their work to evade each other, and travel constantly. They also bicker so much about their fundamental views—on life, love, work, art, family, and so on—that you begin to wonder what’s keeping them together.
But that’s the wrong question about a relationship that began as connection by “mutual disconnection.” Their differences strengthen their need for each other as a point of stability. (Early on in their relationship this predicament is illustrated quite literally when they move to a boat anchored in Regent’s Canal.) Their dance of attraction and estrangement reflects both their longing for a new home and their homesickness. These two desires, though related, aren’t conflated: Guo portrays immigration as a state of rootlessness, a departure with no final arrival. Her characters wander through time and place, clutching at images and language. In new settings, they’re inquisitive and nonplussed, stubborn of mind and sensitive of heart, haunted by a desire to assemble a home rather than find one.
The three languages—English, Chinese, and German—shared between the couple provide a frame around which they build a new home. As if overhearing their heated discussion of translations and points of grammar, or offering the subjects to them, Guo builds a sturdy structure of words, phrases, and quotes. In the novel, which takes its title from Roland Barthes’s 1977 book of nearly the same name (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), a word or phrase titles each chapter, as in Barthes’s book. Below that, a piece of dialogue pulled from the chapter gives the character’s words a staged quality before they’re even spoken. The section titles (West, South, East, North, Down, Up, Left, Right) are vague and disorienting in a way that points out their arbitrariness. Taken together, these structuring devices intentionally flatten and fragment the story that occurs between them. They mimic the expanding structure of a mind carefully built to house experiences that might otherwise prove indecipherable, collapse, or disappear entirely.
In addition to Guo’s homage, throughout the novel her narrator also contends with Barthes’s work and ideas. She calls his book “a personal document” and relates to him personally despite the differences between them. Though nationality is perhaps the most fundamental of these—even a perfect command of English wouldn’t make the narrator “a primary citizen of the West”—the narrator only notes that difference near the end of the book. Near the beginning, she lobs Barthes’s “death of the author” argument (his call for the separation of an author’s biography from consideration of their work) at her Ph.D. dissertation supervisor in an attempt to explode his legal concerns about her thesis on a village in Guangdong Province, where uneducated peasants produce meticulous copies of masterwork paintings. Later on, we see her deeply troubled by the revelation that Barthes’s discourse was written between men, making her feel the book, in a sense, isn’t “for her,” as she wanted it to be. She asks, “Had I completely misunderstood Barthes? Or had I misunderstood myself?” Almost each chapter includes a dizzying moment of mutual exclusivity like this one, of suddenly realized difference from others, the book like a series of high existential peaks from which the narrator might plummet.
The constant shifting of what constitutes “difference” makes Guo’s portrait of an immigrant experience a restless and mesmerizing one. Language, art, gender, academic discipline, political ideology, family history, culture—no single one of these accounts for the narrator’s experience of the world. The interplay of each of them through the narrator’s vast intelligence and sensitivity—and Guo’s ability to keep them all in play through the strict structuring and pacing of chapters and sections—makes the characters’ reactions reliably unpredictable, frequently delightful, and, at times, deeply moving.
For instance, the narrator emigrates from China without etching the death date on her recently deceased mother’s tombstone. Later, in London, when reassessing her relationship to Barthes after learning more about his life, she quotes his description of the room where his mother died, and he now sleeps: “And I always put some flowers on the table. I do not wish to travel anymore so that I may stay here and prevent the flowers from withering away.” The narrator understands that Barthes’s love for his mother left him no space for romantic love. Here, Guo bypasses a moment of identification in which the narrator might succumb to guilt, or even grief, in pursuit of her character’s greater truth. The narrator wonders if her lack of love from and for her own parents will allow her romantic love to be “strong and complete.” “I wanted my adult life to be in Europe,” she reflects on her decision to leave her home in China. The narrator leaves the flowers to wither on the table and begins to learn a new kind of love that will anchor her to a new land, with her partner: “My love for you was to do with this boat life, this water, this landscape, and where we would finally moor.”
Like Barthes, though not to the same extent, Guo’s book foregrounds theme so that plot becomes more episodic than narrative. Even so, story and character are essential to Guo’s achievement. Beneath negotiations of culture and language, the push and pull of emotion and intellect drive ever deeper, raising the stakes for concerns that might otherwise be dismissed as pedantic or pretentious. Guo accomplishes what her narrator wishes to in her thesis project—not originality, which “is a fetish of people who want to control the art market and the publishing industry,” but rather something both more concrete and more ephemeral, already “beginning to fade”—the feeling of watching the artisans in the Chinese village reproducing Western masterpieces from iPhone pictures. Something that, though she passes her thesis defense, the narrator doesn’t manage to make understood. “The Western language and mentality,” she says, “did not allow me to do it.” Guo’s comprehension of limits—of communication, intimacy, knowledge, and cultural exchange—suggests there’s purpose to approaching those limits anyway, of having the courage it takes to see what’s there and then to keep moving.