Andrea Lingenfelter’s translation of Mian Mian’s Candy is like reading Kathy Acker—it’s disgusting but also accessible in the sense that it’s like reading the work of a rock star. It’s unwilling to be understood, but the questions it poses about conformity and overindulgence makes for a rewarding read.
Hong, the protagonist, narrates her story with refreshing innocence and poise against her earliest traumas—a friend’s suicide, jail time, a cheating boyfriend, a break-in. And this melody continues against a backdrop of heroin, Jim Morrison, and sometimes satisfying sex. In Shenzhen, citizens won’t grow up and in many ways can’t grow up. The navel gazing and Hong’s mistake after mistake might tire some readers, but when we see the perspective of Hong’s acquaintances and Saining, some of which have the darkest experiences imaginable, the story takes a turn. As Hong starts to become a writer and is getting clean, the writing style (Hong’s narrative style) starts winding down, becoming more primitive, repeating hopeless, empty sentiments. Progress isn’t real. This is all for nothing. Mian Mian herself says, “I don’t want to teach anybody. This world is cruel.” But is this simply a cautionary tale? Is Hong really redeeming herself via writing? Without a whiff of communism, this is where location—China—rather than New York or London is important. Or might be important.
As the translator’s note suggests, the themes of living on the borderlines and existing in this gray space is a metaphor with many layers, one of them taking an apolitical stance. We don’t know if Hong is suggesting a need for reform or has simply lost hope in China’s political structure.
Shenzhen is a place of too much freedom. Adult babies existing in the plot have been starving for feeling, so they eat candy until they’re sick. Shenzhen is all the ways you never imagined you might compromise yourself. There’s no way of knowing if this is what the characters wanted or needed. There doesn’t seem to be a balance between freedom and strangulation.
The elements of music, counterculture, and flighty romantic relationships exemplify this issue so well. The characters bask in psychedelic synths that offer no logic, just feeling. Hong continuously asks, “What is climax?” When Saining fucks her like he doesn’t know her—only then she feels “touched.” She wants her boyfriend to “need” her. It’s only when she’s clean and out of touch with this underground world that she realizes she was in this toxic relationship to rid herself of her weakness and confusion. She needed to be controlled, and control is presented as neither good nor bad.
One of the last things Saining says to her is, “You’re a fake.” Does she believe she was false to him? Does she believe she was false to herself? And is she still being false? Chinese women from “the North” preying on foreign men and counterfeiting are prevalent themes in Hong’s story. No one in this practice does it out of necessity—they do it to be trusted, but no one seems to have it for each other in the end. Narratives involving confidence artists are used to present lessons, but in a story that offers no lessons, what are readers left with? We’re not certain if Hong has found herself, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Mian Mian does want to note China’s obsession with “self-definition over nation building.” But if Hong feels connected to no one, and she’s part of China’s collective identity, does this offer another hopeless message?
There’s a scene where Hong is in a bar and asks the two men on each side of her to talk into her ear. Each speaks a language she doesn’t speak. There’s no point in trying to understand, but readers sense she’s just trying to feel something. Maybe she just likes the way they sound.
By Treasa Bane
“Banned in China, with Mian Mian labeled the ‘poster child for spiritual pollution’-CANDY still managed to sell 60,000 copies, as well as countless additional copies in pirated editions.”