The porous border between nature and humans has become even more so in the 12 stories in Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins (Subito Press, 2018) by Janalyn Guo. None of the characters seems at all surprised by the perilous world in which they live: in the story, “Night Floats,” for example, sand dunes divide a city and various inhabitants, known as “levitators” can hover high up in the air, where there are no boundaries, and dream of “circumnavigating the world on rollerblades and sailboats, hiking from Alaska to Chile, living remotely in the mountains and backcountry skiing, exploring the last of the wilderness.” No matter how odd and challenging the world has become, Guo’s characters have adjusted to the situation, even if they find it difficult to establish bonds with others.
In “Bloom,” the collection’s first story, the narrator’s aunt runs “a small gua sha parlor in Fushun, China.” Gua sha, also known as “coining,” is an ancient Chinese practice in which someone scrapes your skin with a sharp tool. The belief is that the scraping helps the blood flow to areas of the body that are tired, stiff, and even injured. It is an extreme form of massage therapy that most likely originated in a time of debilitating manual labor.
Guo’s story begins in a realist vein:
[The gua sha parlor] was a converted storage space, squeezed tightly between an arcade and a bathhouse. If you held your ear against one wall, you could hear the plinky electronic music coming out of the gaming cabinets. If you held your ear up to the other wall, you could hear water gurgling through the pipes and the shouting of men in the midst of their bathhouse conversations.
This is life in one of the industrial cities that have sprung up in the last 25 years in China, like the ones you see in Jia Zhangke’s films, such as 24 City (2008) and A Touch of Sin (2013). What is immediately clear is Guo has an eye for the telling detail. Each sentence is smooth and precise, conveying texture, smells, and sights. The writing is sensuous, and that in itself quickly pulled me in: I became an avid reader, curious to learn what happens next. And what happens next in this story starts out innocuous enough: “An abundance of motes, spores, and seedpods rained down on us that spring.”
From that sentence the narrator effortlessly pivots to a conversation she is having with her aunt as they take a walk:
She told me about a small batch of customers she had every spring whose pores opened up especially big. She called them “men in bloom.” They returned to the parlor, angry and fearful, to show her that their backs were sprouting flowers or vegetables or bay trees. My aunt took them into a private room where she assured them that there was nothing to worry about. She sat them down and asked them: Well, isn’t this what you wanted.
Guo might as well be talking about the reader because isn’t that what you want, to be brought by words to a place where anything can happen? It is certainly what this reader wants. If you regularly read fiction and watch movies, at a certain point you pretty much know what is going to happen next. Can the writer or filmmaker surprise, interest, or excite you? Can he or she keep you eager?
This is what Guo does in Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, her debut collection. She elaborates a self-sufficient world that runs according to its own inner logic. In “Bloom,” the narrator “[performs] gua sha on [her] life” and wonders how it will change her. The ending leaves us in a world still open to our curiosity, one that is not neat, and this is true of all the stories in this marvelous collection.
I say marvelous because each of Guo’s stories is replete with strange and spectacular events, which she renders with enough explicit detail to keep this reader hungering for more. She can shift registers in the blink of an eye. After a character in “Night Floats” describes the liquid diet he must subsist on after he has his jaw wired shut, he finishes with this flourish: “In fact, along with my shake, I ate a plump marshmallow shredded into small pieces.”
In the story “The Sea Captain’s Ghost,” the reader encounters three characters: the Sea Captain’s Ghost, as well as the Sea Captain, who is not dead yet, and the Sea Captain’s Daughter, Daphne, who lives in the “Starfish Villa,” which is colored “light pink” and has “five arms that convene at the center […] like a starfish.” The fabulist side of Guo’s stories never overwhelms the emotional. She never explains away the inchoate feelings bubbling in her characters.
No matter what happens, Guo’s characters adjust to their new circumstances. “Acting Lessons” begins: “When our men came down with a strange sickness, my mother and I took over watching the frog pond.” This is followed in the very next sentence by, “We wore their clothes.” How can you not want to go on, not be curious to see what will happen next, or how Guo will fill in the space she just opened up by placing these sentences together. Not only does the author fill in the space, but she opens up more spaces: “Not accustomed to being still, I continued to perform for my mother as the leading lady of her night-vision diorama.”
Guo goes down multiple tracks simultaneously. There is the “strange sickness”; and the narrator’s mother, who was “not an actor anymore”; and the father, who was a “renowned director” famous for staging Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House in village after village along the Yellow River. Once the narrator gets these balls in the air, she adds more as she moves forward in time and space. And for all the strangeness of this world — its sense of nature gone out of control, confronting its inhabitants with threatening circumstances — what drives the stories are the relationship of a daughter and her parents, a worker and her co-worker, a girl of 11, and a boy who lives “two pools” down from her “[in] the island town of Crow, [where] only hearts were planted in the ground to conserve space.”
Guo’s stories take place in China’s cities and countryside, in Paris, and in made up places. New diseases and weather patterns are mixed together with ancient remedies and rituals. Her concoctions do many things. For one, they imagine a preternatural world that people have gracefully adjusted to. They also do something that I think needs to be said: they take Asian American fiction to a new place, where categories that may once have been used to separate realist narratives, science fiction, fabulist concoctions, and folktales no longer apply. That is a major accomplishment.