Love in a Fallen City will continue to introduce Eileen Chang to the West, but she is, to mainland and Taiwanese readers, a much picked-over literary giantess: a Sylvia Plath analogue with her own culture industry, who had reporters flying to L.A. to dig through her trash. Yet a Guardian obit of October 1995 begins: “When the caretaker of a Los Angeles apartment block realised he had not seen the old Chinese lady for many days, he rang her bell and, on getting no answer.…” Chang was found dead on September 8, 1995, after forty years with little output and increasing hermitism. Her loneliness, sometimes improved to “mystery” or “glamour”—a constant even in her out-and-about years as a young columnist in Shanghai—made her famous. It kept pace with her reputation when the work stopped.
In her teens, Chang was locked up by her opium-addict father for half a year before she was able to escape; at age seventy-three, she sent a photo of herself holding a newspaper with the date instead of accepting a major literary award in person. Even as a free woman she had a hostage mind-set. Her fictional creations have too much, or more often not enough, subjectivity. They suffer but don’t walk out to meet any kind of end. All of them are slightly unreal. This might be what director Ang Lee, whose string of films about societal outliers includes Brokeback Mountain and The Hulk, meant. Discussing actress hopefuls for his adaptation of the Chang spy thriller “Lust, Caution,” he said, “Basically, such a female character does not exist. We can only try to be as close to what she described. For example, if there are five requirements and no one meets all of them, we will look for four, three, two.”
Like Lee’s search (he cast an unknown, opposite Cantonese star Tony Leung), “Love in a Fallen City,” the title story, begins nearly doomed: a divorcée boards a boat to Hong Kong in pursuit of a playboy. Sometimes called the Gone with the Wind of the East, it’s more moony than imaginative—there’s a barefoot Indian temptress, middle-of-the-night phone calls from the hotel room next door, rain showers—and the ending could be shaken out of a box. Standing by a gray wall days before the Japanese bombing, the bachelor Liuyuan tells Liusu, who will become his mistress and then his wife: “Someday, when human civilization has been completely destroyed, when everything is burned, burst, utterly collapsed and ruined, maybe this wall will still be here. If, at that time, we can meet at this wall, then maybe, Liusu, you will honestly care about me, and I will honestly care about you.” But they never go back to the wall. After the city falls, they stumble through the smashed landscape, past “yellow cliffs, then red cliffs, more red cliffs, then yellow cliffs again.” Liusu asks about the wall. Liuyuan says, “Haven’t gone to check.” Liusu sighs: “Doesn’t matter.” Maybe this is Chang’s idea of a joke, but it also fits with how little, at times, history troubled her, and how little so much of the work meant to her: piles of film scripts, American-backed anti-Communist novels about land reform. In the ’50s she left Shanghai for Hong Kong, where she had a room at the YWCA and earned money translating for the U.S. Information Service—Hemingway, Emerson, Washington Irving—work she compared to translating books about dentistry.
Chang was bent, in her own stories, to a specific condition she wrote and rewrote: a feeling of uselessness so total as to become pathology. In “Jasmine Tea,” Chuanqing suspects his professor had been his dead mother’s lover, and becomes obsessed with an alternate universe in which the professor is his father. Sex and family break down in a hyper-oedipal one-man farce as Chuanqing courts the professor’s daughter, Danzhu, solely so he can “subject her to all sorts of subtle psychological tortures,” though he’s hardly subtle: “If you fell in love with someone else,” he tells her, “to him you’d only be someone to love. But to me, you’d be much more than that. You’d be creator, father, mother, a new world, a new everything. You’d be past and future. You’d be God.” When Danzhu rejects him, he beats her to unconsciousness and leaves her body on a mountain slope. But he doesn’t have the courage to “finish her off”; “in a few days, when classes started again, he would still have to see her at school.”
These are the sorts of desexed men and women who fill the stories, sex gone the way of freedom, power, confidence: our ideas about the likeliness of a world where cause and effect can have relatively normal, or reliable and personal, meaning. With sex gone, we might prefer madness, turning and turning in bed like Ch’i-ch’iao in “The Golden Cangue”—an aging woman who loses love and then has nothing to do with the rest of her life but try to get those around her addicted to opium. It’s a story Chang wrote four times in twenty-four years, in Mandarin and English, twice as the novel The Rouge of the North and its Chinese counterpart.
In the end, there’s not much Chang out there. Besides the fiction, we have Written on Water (Columbia University Press), a collection of columns on fashion, art, music, war, and modernity, written in ’40s occupied Shanghai. In one, she discusses her play about a man thrown upon the mercy of relatives. After an argument, he jumps up: “I can’t take any more of this. Let’s go! Let’s get out of here!” His wife asks, “But where are we to go?” The man gathers his children and says, “Let’s go! Let’s go upstairs.” But at dinnertime, they come back down again. A generation of Chinese, Chang writes, learned to leave home from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, first available in translation in 1918. (Missing-person ads proliferated in the papers with messages like “Since you left at nine o’clock at night on the twelfth without saying goodbye, Grandma is confined to bed…”) She starts to see if there can be something beyond going upstairs, but then concedes to—that improbable phrase—the “advantage of reality”: “Housewives have ‘gone upstairs,’ dreaming is ‘going upstairs,’ remaking the American film Rebecca is ‘going upstairs’… but there is in fact no single formula for making such determinations. The advantage of reality is that exceptions are so plentiful, and each individual case needs to be analyzed on its own terms.”
Chang’s dramas are at heart practical ones, and they stand in an attitude caught between realism and abstraction. (Somewhat related: Chang was an accomplished doodler, and some of her drawings can be found in Written on Water. In many of these she tries to get at a truth of human types by putting labels to grouped faces, but it’s surprisingly hard to match them up. Some sets include: a crazed artist; a ballet dancer; a Japanese dandy; a girl named Yukiko, and nastiness; shallowness; stupidity; pretension.) Or maybe this is just the product of writing inside an overtly determinist political history in which things must therefore seem to happen at the wrong time. Sense and purpose hesitate even as they’re being set down, leaving us with something kind of flat, kind of bewildering, kind of scary—something typically Chang, as when she considers an unknown mind as tightly shut white doors at night: “you pound at them with all your might, absolutely convinced that a murder is taking place inside. But when the doors open to admit you, there’s no such thing. There’s not even a building.” Without grounding in modern Chinese fiction, reading Chang might call up, in pieces, jumbled, probably false Western referents—Dickens, Graham Greene, even, in a moment, Beckett. A woman in the story “Red Rose, White Rose” sits for hours in the bathroom. Only there can she openly, rightfully “do nothing, say nothing, think nothing. The rest of the time she also did nothing, said nothing, and thought nothing, but she always felt a little uneasy about it.” Somewhere along the way Chang saw there could be no theory of escape. Her fictions have no futures that bear thinking about.