Chairman Wow!

September 20, 2009

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Filed under: Uncategorized — Carly J Hallman @ 6:27 am

There’s a reason that Chinese pop culture hasn’t quite broken into the American mainstream with the shattering intensity of, say, Indian pop culture (Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, Bollywood, Bhangra). Chinese fiction, music, and films (and I say this with the utmost respect, Zhang Yimou) are often laden with untranslatable inner-cultural complexities and are, accordingly, largely inaccessible to the average western viewer. However, Chinese writer and director Xiaolu Guo is doing something to change that. Released in English-speaking countries in the summer of 2008, her novel Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is a short, straightforward fictional account of contemporary Chinese life.


At 17, bored and restless, narrator Fenfang hops a train out of her rural village and establishes a home for herself in the urban jungle that is modern Beijing. After working a series of dead-end jobs in factories, Fenfang stumbles upon an opportunity of a lifetime and begins a career working as an extra in TV & films.

Twenty Fragments is sometimes a quirky love story, sometimes a charming piece of food writing (Fenfang possesses a separate-but-equal love for mass-manufactured UFO instant noodles and handmade chive dumplings), sometimes a glimpse into the mad world of Chinese film (the novel contains an excerpt from a screenplay Fenfang writes), sometimes an intimate peek into the struggle of the modern Chinese woman. But Twenty Fragments does not suffer from an identity crisis; quite the opposite. It’s true beauty lies in its quiet confidence and its refreshing simplicity. Xiaolu Guo’s unpretentious prose enables the reader to both understand Fenfang’s background and circumstances (no sticky cultural messes here) and to sympathize deeply with her plights.

In just 176 pages, Xiaolu Guo manages to accomplish what countless other Chinese filmmakers, writers, artists, and actors have spent their lives trying, and failing, to do. Easily read in a single sitting, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth serves as a fast, easy, enjoyable, and much-needed orientation for the average American to Chinese popular culture.


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