Alex Kuo
University of Indianapolis Press ($16.95)

by Lucas Klein

Avant-garde poetry in English, since Ezra Pound, has been infatuated with China, incorporating its exoticisms, its ideograms, its philosophies, and its aesthetics into its explorations of new verse. And yet, much of this poetry relies on a knowledge of China somewhat less than expert; Pound never let ignorance stand in the way of poetic effect, and many avant-garde poets have been happy to follow his example.

Yet while the Anglophone avant-garde and China have made friends in poetry, few experimental novelists have been as willing to incorporate China into their writing. Perhaps fiction writers are afraid that dilettantism is more blatant when hundreds of pages worth of characters and plot are involved, so the list of English-language novels that focus on things Chinese doesn't extend much beyond Pearl Buck (hardly the vanguard) and Alvin Lu's The Hell Screens. In some ways this reticence toward China on the part of novelists in English has allowed experimental Chinese fiction—such as that written by Shi Zhicun, Wang Wen-hsing, Yu Hua, and Gao Xingjian—to find a few more worthy readers. Still, when a postmodernist novel in English appears born from a deep engagement with China, we take notice.

Alex Kuo is a Chinese-American who put in his time—in the late '80s and early '90s—living in China, and his Panda Diaries includes patches of brilliance. Kuo's eye for Chinese detail is keen, and he employs his observations toward quick, active writing: "In a country in which laundry detergents are sold by names from the animal kingdom—Panda, White Cat, Goldfish—and washing machines by flower names—Narcissus, Lotus, Daffodil—anything can and does happen." His magic-absurdist take on contemporary China is also buffered by his observations, such as when he describes a village plagued by yearly floods:

At one point in the village's history, there was talk of trapping the Floodwater Deity with a net made of every thread in the village and casting it across the river at the height of the flood . . . If they could only trap the Floodwater Deity, haul it out of the muddy water and let it dry in the air and sunlight for three consecutive days, then the floods would cease forever and never again devastate the village. But . . . not everyone was willing to sacrifice every piece of thread, rope, string, yarn, twine, animal hair, and lint for something that they were not so sure about. They knew they would at least eventually use that last piece of saved string, if only to tie some duck's legs together for the market.

More importantly, the conceit of Panda Diaries is Kuo's greatest flash of brilliance: a mail-delivering panda becomes the only friend to an honest and alienated government bureaucrat wrestling with his political past and his desire to reconnect with his family. Taken alone, a panda in fiction could be reminiscent of either Ron Carlson or Seth MacFarlane, but here Kuo sets the panda to indicate the necessity of environmentalism for China's political self-examination. The protagonist, Colonel Ge, opens up to Panda in chapters that alternate with flashbacks to Ge's Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square past, suggesting that Panda learns of Ge's history along with us. While Ge is no mere symbol for China (for that matter, neither is Panda), the suggestion is that for the country to move forward, it must open up both to its history and its animals.

And yet, for all this, Panda and Ge raise more questions than they can answer. What, really, is this Panda, anyway? How did he get to be a mail carrier? While the book opens and closes with documentary-style clippings of panda-trafficking around the world, this Panda is, despite his presumed girth, quite flat. Flatness is not necessarily a criticism—after all, in fiction where pandas talk and eat noodles, why adhere to writing-workshop codes of character development?—but the question is raised. If flatness is purposeful, then what is its purpose?

Questions crop up around the portrayal of Colonel Ge, too. In a recalled discussion with his wife, she intones:

"Papa and Mama have always busied themselves with their children's education, employment, residency, and only until recently, even their choice of marriage partner. Except that now with communism, the state has become the parents, the work unit has become the parents. The administrative organization of feudalism with its elaborate but clear assignment of authority and obedience has morphed into this modernized age, even co-opting the one-child-per-family policy that perhaps it had invented in the first place to take over that final stronghold of choice."

If the world of Kuo's fiction allows couples to speak to each other like this, then—talking pandas aside—what is the relationship of Kuo's fictive world to our real one? Are we supposed to accept their language as Chinese or as English, or as some kind of nether-world translationese? In what language was "morph" a word in the early '80s, when this dialogue takes place? When this debate yields their decision to separate, we find that while questions are not necessarily criticisms, this narrative has neither the breadth nor the depth to sustain suitable answers.

True honesty and sincerity is to be found within Panda Diaries, however. The rhetorical questions that parents must ask when separating are laid out with touching eloquence:

How do you tell a six-year-old that his parents who seem to love each other have decided to get a divorce? How do you tell a six-year-old that his parents who seem to love him have more important things to do in life than be with him? How do you tell your six-year-old that you're leaving him in order to shape your own political destiny?

Because of the energy and genius that motivates so much of this novel, as well as the glimpses of earned sympathy, the quickness with which the novel glides over the moments of dramatic tension is its greatest shortcoming. In under a hundred pages—plus an oddball alphabetic list called "The Animal Grammar," an exhaustive compendium of English phrases that refer to animals, as in "to LEECH / Change a LEOPARD's spots / LION's share"—this book tries to accommodate politics, history, family, and cross-species friendship. But for Panda Diaries to be a true novel of ideas, it would have to be larger, more expansive, both developing the characters and their interactions, and answering the questions—about character, language, and China—that it still leaves incomplete.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006