Twenty Fragments of
A Ravenous Youth

A Novel
Xiaolu Guo
(Nan Talese/
They call it "A Novel" but I think of it as a "Chinese Eat Freak Fest." Each time Fenfang has nothing to do or is tired of writing screenplays for movies that never get produced or gets depressed by the sandstorms in Beijing, at the drop of a couple of chopsticks she goes out and stuffs herself.

Pig ears. Squid barbecue. Duck blood soup. Chive dumplings. And, uhm, "pig trotters." I had to look it up. Stupid me. I thought it was mountain oysters. Nope. Pigs' feet. Good enough to eat ... or make philosophy with. "Life is just like those stewed pigs' trotters," says Mr. Jin, the movie producer. Jin's name means "Loaded-with-Gold." She's trying to sell a screen play to him, but all he wants to do is talk about the tall women he's loved, and pigs' trotters:

    Sometimes you just have to eat what you're given.

So it's not all heaven in the food stalls and cafés of Our City of Dust. Fanfeng's last meal before she departs, outside of a package of dried noodles, was carp's head. Carp's head in broth.

"The fish head disintegrated into a gooey mess. The fish bones had melted too. The only thing left solid in the dish were the eyeballs." You look at this fish pot-au-feu ... and it looks back at you.

When Fenfang goes to look for a job, she changes into "something decent and sharp:"

    A Korean TB2 skirt. A tight-fitting Double Love T-shirt ... I pulled my hair into a ponytail. I looked like a new generation woman.

Decent and sharp? Perhaps, but to some of us more like a fright flick out of a consortium of WTO fanatics.

§     §     §

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is an odd mix. Chinese Existential angst jumbled together with cheap apartments, Sandy Lam singing "I Love Someone Who Isn't Coming Home," Nirvana's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," Cha-Haisheng's "Facing the Ocean, the Warmth of Spring is Blossoming."

And, too, The Lost Weekend, Zhao Dan's Crossroads, and the UFO Pure Japanese Food Company. This last isn't a newly discovered rock group, or a newly discovered classic from Tsui Hark ... it's just another helping of dried noodles. "I knew I ate too much," Fenfang observes, "but I couldn't help it. I was ravenous all the time."

If you want to know how desolate and desperate life can be in 21st Century Beijing, this is your book. Me? I think I'll curl up with a DVD of Streetcar Named Desire ... and another large bowl of duck blood soup.

--- Lolita Lark
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