THE INVISIBILITY CLOAK
by Ge Fei
translated by Canaan Morse
NYRB Classics, 127 Pages
reviewed by William Morris
The narrator and protagonist of The Invisibility Cloak—the first English translation of a novel by acclaimed Chinese writer Ge Fei—is not an inherently likable person. Cui sees intellectuals as mainly full of nonsense. He is also quick to play the victim, blaming those around him for his misfortunes. But it would be difficult to read this novel without at times empathizing with the narrator. His wife left him, he’s living in his sister’s crummy apartment, and the only real solace he finds is in sitting in the dark, listening to Beethoven on CD. In a moment of particular insight and self-awareness, Cui thinks:
I’m certainly not a nostalgic man; maybe my heart was heavy because this place used to be called “home.” The scraping of tree branches against the roof; the moon in the leaves; the whirr of cicadas and the crash of rain; the smell of coal dust brushed from the furnace on an early morning, all used to accompany me to bed night after night and gently touch my soul in the darkness. But once that unique sort of loneliness settles in your chest, you feel the fear of time and life extinguished, as if the best years of your life had finally been squandered completely.
Cui works as an audio technician, building hi-fi stereo equipment for wealthy businessmen and intellectuals. His clients listen mostly to insubstantial pop music, and know very little about sound systems. The disdain Cui feels for these people seems justified—he scrapes by, doing thankless jobs, and sees his masterful creations used mindlessly by those with greater power and influence. In his daily life, Cui has a sense of beauty squandered.
Cui has been allowed to inhabit a drafty, lifeless apartment owned by his sister and her husband, but they now have plans for the property and insist he move out. Forced to make it on his own, Cui agrees to do business with Ding Caichen, a mysterious, powerful businessman looking for “the highest-quality sound system in the world. The more extravagant the better.” Cui’s situation is a helpless ultimatum: either work for the eerie, possibly dangerous Ding, or be homeless by the end of the year.
The publisher’s back cover description promises that The Invisibility Cloak will appeal to readers of Haruki Murakami, and it’s not wrong. Like many readers, I’ve fallen hard for Murakami’s writing. In The Invisibility Cloak, I see many elements of plot and character reminiscent of Murakami: a quirky narrator, a series of weird sexual encounters, extensive reference to Western culture and music, and a looming, if vaguely articulated, menace. Alas, there are no talking cats or empty wells, though neither would have felt out of place here.
But to suggest that Ge Fei’s novel is nothing more than a continuation in Murakami’s tradition would be to undersell the distinctive qualities of both writers. This is no pastiche or ventriloquist act. In this fabulist tale set in contemporary Beijing, Fei is taking part in a conversation about past and present, values and ideologies, and whether it is possible to believe in anything in today’s world. On her deathbed, the narrator’s mother tells him “everyone has a wife waiting for him somewhere.” She tells him that when he meets this woman he will know. This seems like a comforting piece of old-world wisdom, perhaps. The series of women Cui encounters throughout the novel, however, fall into two mutually exclusive categories: those he thinks may be the “wife waiting for him” and those he could feasibly marry. When his dead mother later comes to him, as promised, in a dream, she can’t give any tangible advice beyond a cryptic shake of the head.
Reading in translation can be difficult. The reader has to wonder how much of the writer’s original voice was translated, and how much was lost in the process. Cui’s narration is sure of itself, the voice consistently critical of the world at large. English language readers won’t feel out of place in Ge Fei’s Beijing, a metropolis teeming with modern trappings and economic disparities like any major American city.
The Invisibility Cloak checks in at just about 130 pages, and follows a first person narrator through a mainly chronological story. And yet, there’s something about this book—something unreal and quietly mystical in the things left unsaid—that leaves me in awe, unsure what to say or how to feel. This is what great fiction strives to do: return us to the world unsettled, wondering what invisible happenings around us keep time turning, keep the music playing.
William Morris is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has appeared in print and online, most recently at Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Fiction Southeast, and Red Earth Review. He divides his time between St. Louis and Salt Lake City, and is always reading. He also works as an editor at Natural Bridge. His other areas of interest include cats, coffee, and cryptozoology.