Can Xue’s experimental novella Mystery Train opens in total darkness: a chicken-farm employee named Scratch wakes up to find himself “in one of [the] pitch-dark sleeper cars” of a train. Confused, Scratch gets out of bed and looks at his wrist to check the time, but is unable to make out the face of his watch at all. In fact, Scratch peers around the cabin and can’t “see a thing.” He tries to recall the events that brought him to this place, but even that eludes him. As he racks his brain, a single “dim, pre-sleep memory” forms—and at that, the story slowly starts to unfold.
The obscurity, literal and psychological, of the opening sets the tone for the entirety of Mystery Train, a chilling mystery-thriller translated from Chinese into English by Natascha Bruce. Darkness reigns throughout: it is the book’s defining and driving force, the thing that is always present, that none of its characters can escape.
Once Scratch awakes in the train car and orients himself, he attempts to assess the situation he has found himself in. He explores the train, trying to pry information out of the people he comes across. Among them are a policeman who sits on Scratch’s bed and aggressively rebuffs his questions, a volatile train conductor who vacillates between reticence and oversharing, and an obese woman named Birdie who craves love and with whom Scratch has a sudden sexual affair. Through all these interactions, it quickly becomes clear that Scratch’s endeavors to make sense of where he is will be unsuccessful, for no one seems to have any answers for him.
Or don’t they? As the book goes on, Scratch begins to suspect that while he does not understand what is happening around him, everyone else does—that they are all in on some big secret and purposefully keeping him out of the know. After he meets Birdie for the first time, he asks her, “Please, tell me, what does the conductor want from me?” She deflects his question, denying that the conductor even cares about him and then moving on to a different topic of conversation altogether. This happens constantly throughout Mystery Train: Scratch inquires about something, and others avoid answering or brush the question off like it is nothing. But the facts don’t add up, and with each new plot point, people and events past and present start to seem more and more linked. And, from the people all around him, Scratch can feel a looming, overpowering sense of dread: “They all seemed to be tormented by the same thing, something that was always just about to happen but hadn’t happened yet. What was it?”
Mystery Train is not a traditional mystery: there is no central case to be solved, no perpetrator of some crime to be uncovered. Instead, the book embodies mystery on a more sinister, interior level. While the characters constantly deflect comprehension, Can’s prose itself is equally enigmatic. Like the mystery train, Can plunges ahead with the plotline of the novella while simultaneously refusing to explain any of it, leaving readers in the dark about where it all may be heading. By strategically revealing and withholding information, Can creates a sort of morbid curiosity to get to the end, which effectively propels the story forward.
The characters’ general attitude of indifference about their own situation adds to the unsettling intrigue of Mystery Train. In the train, Birdie whispers to Scratch that “There’s nothing a person can’t put up with if they try.” Can’s characters live by this motto, “putting up with” dire and, later, life-threatening living conditions without complaint. Most incomprehensible to Scratch is that everyone accepts the overwhelming darkness as something they simply cannot do anything about. For Birdie—who, we learn, only has “half a face” due to a childhood accident—absolute darkness is something she actively desires:
Sometimes I seriously think about abandoning everything and running off with you. Not to the kind of place you want to go, but to somewhere even darker, even safer, where there’s no fire, not even a gas lamp. A huge dark house where we could live happily ever after, just the two of us. And if we were ever separated, you and I would be forever plunged into a state of beautiful melancholy.
As the novella comes to a close, Birdie’s voice starts to blend with the author’s as she takes over a part of the narration. At points, this has an eerie effect:
Listen carefully—what do you hear? Nothing, because there’s nothing out there, only my voice explaining things to you. And take a look, look as hard as you can, do you see anything? No, because there’s nothing. Out here in the wilderness, there’s only us.
These lines feel hypnotic, as if Birdie is casting a spell of sleep on Scratch, lulling him into blind acceptance of his ultimate fate. Indeed, of one of his many strange encounters, Scratch “couldn’t say for certain if it had been a dream or not.” The same could be wondered upon finishing reading this bizarre book.