Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes

I have enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s storytelling style: crisp, bold, full of humour.

UFO in her eyes
UFO in her eyes

The disjointed narrative and peasants-speak in UFO in Her Eyes serve a purpose. A record of a series of investigation reports centering on the appearance of a UFO above Silver Hill Village’s sky, Guo highlights the disinterested attitude of some individuals towards the UFO happening, each being too caught up with their own daily struggles. In the narrative, the mystery lies not only in the appearance of the UFO, but in the strange ways this UFO incident impact on the lives of the villagers, bringing progress and at the same time a new form of existential angst, and the nostalgia for a self-sufficient, idyllic China.

Initially celebrated as an event that brought unexpected windfall to the village, the discovery of the UFO and Kwok Yun’s rescue of the American catalysed the change of the village and soon led to problems: the uprooting of traditional values, the clearing up of farmlands for industrial and commercial developments, the rise of pollution and the artifice of technology.

Half way through the story, we catch a glimpse of the super-structure, the invisible hand in the socialist regime, shadows of doubt and hidden motives: even Chief Chang and the investigation officer are questioned and put under secret surveillance.

The characterisation in the novel, however, is slightly disappointing. There is not a conscious effort in differentiating the voices to convey different messages, and sometimes it seems that all of the characters are there simply to participate in the collective tragedy of industrialisation. There remains so much unexplored in the protagonist, Kwok Yun. In the previous Guardian book review, Maya Jaggi describes the form, hovering between novel and screenplay, as somewhat frustrating (click here), while Neel Mukherjee points out that the book is undermined by the disproportionate weighting given to the formal high jinks and the elaborate design of documents, lists, investigations etc (click here).

Moreover, while being semi-tragic and a suggestion that socialism has backfired against itself, the sexual incident between Kwok Yun and Headmaster Yee can only at best be seen as a titillating episode that distracts the reader as to what role Kwok Yun plays. Or perhaps we simply find it unsatisfying that Kwok Yun does not end up the heroine we expect her to be.

Personally, I would prefer that the ending be more ambiguous. The over-conclusive clash between socialist ideals and industrial progress, as well as the evident unhappiness of the Kwoks and the villagers, have undermined the poignancy of the plot. Compared to the refreshing dialogue and characterisation in the earlier book The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, here no real risks are taken. Perhaps this has partly to do with Guo’s identity as a writer as well as a film producer: the highly cinematic quality of the work is both its strength and weakness.

Library and bookstore categories

When I went to Waterstones the other day, I stared at the twin categories Crime, vs. True Crime. Placed side by side, they hold an interesting dialogue with each other: do crime story authors, detectives and investigation officers like to read true crime for inspiration?

There is also another intriguing and sad category called Painful Lives.  This category occupies a shelf of its own. I suppose the bookstore would need some internal guidelines to help staff find out what books to put under this category. After all, it can be a rather subjective interpretation.

At the Norwich Millennium library, they dedicate an entire section called UFO.  A brief desktop research reveals repeated sightings and strange lights reported for the mysterious wide-open skies of East Anglia. I don’t think it is a typical book section for any library. (Ref: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/releases/2008/october/ufo.htm)

Next time you visit a bookstore or library, check out the way they organise the collections.