AN EMPTY ROOM by Mu Xin

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A terrific collection, which at times grazes the sentimental, but even then transforms it into bittersweet knowledge, THE EMPTY ROOM functions, in its selection of stories over decades, as a mediated autobiography of an extraordinary life. All “selected works” inevitably can be seen this way, but it seems purposefully done here (and Toming Jun Liu’s enlightening translator’s afterword even argues it can be read as a “linked bildungsroman”).

A well known writer and painter in China — this is his first collection in English — Mu Xin was born in 1927 and survived the Cultural Revolution, imprisonment, and exile. And this book, like Mu Xin himself, crosses from classical Chinese literature to western nouveau roman fragmentation and back again. In a way the book can also be seen as cousin to the fiction-essay hybrids of a Sebald or an Emil Cioran or a Paul Valéry or a Maggie Nelson (which themselves could be called, with only a little imagination, western reflections of sanwen or suibi/zuihitsu traditions)…

The stories span worlds, as makes sense of a collection written during exile (in Forest Hills, Queens). The first story “The Moment When Childhood Vanished” is almost a pre-modern fable about childhood with a sly allusion to Chao-chou’s Newborn Baby koan (case 80) in the Blue Cliff Record; while the title story is an imagistic love poem (but with images that could have been provided by David Lynch); “Notes from Underground” is a profound meditation on solitary confinement that recalls Mu Xin’s actual imprisonment; and “Fong Fong No. 4” depicts the horror and transformational power of the Cultural Revolution through a seemingly quotidian prism of the aging of a love affair’s participants…. In fact each story is in tone and technique quite different, yet a unifying voice and mind clearly is evident throughout this belyingly slim, sorrowful, and sublime triumph.

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