Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
In Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, seventeen-year-old Fenfang flees her tiny village for Beijing, (barely) supporting herself first as a factory worker and then as a film extra. As she learns the various prices of independence in a cramped and communist city, she makes discoveries about her appetites and lack of self-respect, and eventually decides to try her hand at screenwriting.
In the style of Fenfang’s movie script, Xiaolu Guo presents twenty scenes/chapters that put Fenfang’s successes and setbacks in perspective. These vary in length but most are short, introduced by titles reminiscent of scene descriptions in a script: “Fenfang Cuts Herself on a Piece of Glass and Thinks of Xiaolin,” “Fenfang Sits on the Edge of a Swimming Pool but Doesn’t Get In,” “Fenfang Learns Something About Tennessee Williams,” etc. The first person narrative gives the reader a sense of appearing in these scenes of Fenfang’s life. It’s a clever device, and alternately entertaining and frustrating.
Twenty Fragments is also unusual in its genesis. It’s an English revision of Guo’s first Chinese novel, though not her first English publication (her A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was a finalist for last year’s Orange Prize). In her Acknowledgements, Guo explains that she published the original Twenty Fragments in China when she was young; following her later publishing success in the U.S., she decided to translate it, but then re-wrote over top of the translation because she wanted her character to reflect some of the maturity that she herself had gained in the intervening years since its first publication.
My response to the work is mixed. Fenfang’s story portrays the curiosity, desperation, and tenacity of modern urban China, and in that respect I appreciate it, since I think fiction often succeeds non-fiction in producing honest and even empathetic windows to the various cultural facets of the world. But in this case, the window opens on the crushing press of humanity and feelings of defeat with few points of hope or rest. Rare passages are beautifully written, but Fenfang’s raw and often vulgar voice limits Guo’s expression, keeping the narrative authentic but bleak. Perhaps if Guo had allowed her character to mature more, developing that maturity bit by bit throughout the story rather than a spurt of it just at the end, I would have found it a stronger novel. Knowing that it originated in the anxieties and searchings of youth, however, leaves me open to reading her future works.