Monday, March 17, 2014

Do the Time Warp now: Raise the Red Lantern

I'd always heard about Raise the Red Lantern (a novella by Chinese writer Su Tong), but then my husband brought it home and said, "You have to read this." And I'm glad I did. It's one of those stories that leaves a strong impression long after you read it--partly because of the story, partly because of the imagery, and partly because of its use of time (and space). I'm gonna focus on time for now.

Maybe it was or maybe it wasn't...

It reading other stories of Su Tong's and researching his authorial style, I've learned that he's well known for his technique of introducing uncertainty to past events--primarily, he's used it to cast doubt on the Chinese government's narrative of the Cultural Revolution and the events preceding it. In other words, he resists the black-and-white nature of traditional storytelling. For example, take the opening lines of another of his stories, Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes:
"Perhaps my father was a mute fetus. His profound reticence left my family shrouded in a murky gray fog for fully half a century."
This makes for a shocker of a first sentence (a keeper for fantastic opening lines!), and sets up the murkiness of the narrative that follows--one that not only questions the past, but tells it in a non-linear fashion, moving fluidly in between earlier and later events, and even into the present.

Do the Time Warp

Rocky Horror Picture Show "Time Warp" scene;
snipped from
However, in my humble opinion, Su Tong uses his techniques to even greater effect in Raise the Red Lantern (RTRL). With stories like Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes, his signature "time warps" feel more in-your-face, for lack of a better word. Additionally, they tend to blur the edges of events and narratives, whereas in RTRL, the time warps blend the characters themselves, which makes for an incredibly eerie telling that feels of a piece with the story.

RTRL opens when the orphaned Lotus arrives at the house of Master Chen to become his Fourth Mistress. She soon becomes embroiled in domestic politics with Chen's first three concubines, and also discovers a deserted well near her rooms, known as the Well of Death. The well's history is closely guarded and she's warned not to go near it, but Lotus gradually discovers that it's tied to the death of past Chen family concubines.

The ghosts of past, present, and future

One day, Lotus hears Third Mistress Coral singing near the well. It's a haunting Chinese opera aria, sung from the point of a young girl contemplating suicide. Lotus has already had several run-ins with the well, where she has experienced apparitions, so she decides to ask Coral about it:
"Lotus walked to the side of the abandoned well, bent over, and looked down into it; then suddenly she laughed and said, 'Ghosts, there really are ghosts in here! Do you know who died in this well?'
Coral remained seated at the stone table. She said, 'Who else could it be? One of them was you, and one of them was me.'" (p73, paras 3&4)
It's a subtle manipulation but it's really fine and so, so eerie. Simultaneously, it feels like Coral is speaking from the present (perhaps joking or experiencing a mental break), the past (impersonating a ghost or channeling a spirit), and the future (having a vision of their possible fates).

There are many similar episodes in the story where echoes of the past, present, and future collide, but this is my favorite. I love a good ghostly shiver, but it's even more alarming in light of Su Tong's characteristic theme of recurrence and the idea that individuals are powerless before the past.

Wisteria Tunnel at Japan's Kawachi Fuji Garden;
snipped from 

Now you see it, now you don't

In RTRL, this becomes an existential crisis, too, in which not only time, but identity--and maybe even reality--is interchangeable. Take this scene in which Lotus again approaches the well:
"Lotus picked a wisteria leaf off the ground, examined it carefully, and threw it into the well. She watched the leaf float like some sort of ornament on the dark blue surface of the stagnant water, obscuring part of her reflection; she actually could not see her eyes. Lotus walked all the way around the well, but could not find any angle from which to see her entire reflection; she thought it very strange." (p53, para 2)
Lotus has started to conflate herself with the image in the well, and now that image doesn't even have eyes--it's horrific.

Ceci, n'est pas une pipe

If you don't get the joke, click here! Warning: you
probably won't laugh. It's a dumb joke.
At times, Lotus' self-identification also moves beyond humanity or even logic, producing unsettling responses like the following, in which her comments on a flower arrangement point to a crisis of reality:
"Lotus took a few steps forward and said, 'Flowers are not flowers and people are not people; flowers are people and people are flowers; don't you understand such a simple principle?'" (p28, last para)
This is not a technique you can just whip up, because it has to flow seamlessly with and belong to the sense of the story, but it's interesting to read, and opens up possibilities for how to write--what opportunities could you create if you didn't take the timeline of your story for granted? In RTLR, it's magical.

Quotes from: Su, Tong. "Raise the Red Lantern." In: Raise the Red Lantern. Translated by: Duke, Michael S. HarperCollins Publishers Inc.: New York, NY; 2004.

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