Comma Press’s “city anthology” series of short fiction (often in translation) has reached Shanghai. Besides the setting, these stories all follow a common theme, whether intentional or not, of loneliness and isolation. Editor Jin Li explains:
A true map cannot simply mark out the landmarks, and the most popular tourist sites, it must be able to guide readers through the city’s lesser-known corners, its dimly-lit nooks and rarely-frequented crannies. That is to say, a literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.
Loneliness inflicts residents of all ages, from the young, upwardly mobile to retired widows. Two stories feature elderly women from opposite ends of the social economic spectrum. In “Woman Dancing Under Stars” by Teng Xiaolan and translated by Yu Yan Chen, a young woman frequents a coffeehouse near her flat and notices an older, distinguished woman ahead of her in line one day. They see each other at the coffeehouse later that week and the older woman, Zhuge Wei, invites the narrator home. She declines, but can’t stop thinking about this woman, a stranger. The narrator tells her husband about Zhuge. He finds it odd that an older woman would drink tea alone at a café.
My husband had a point: a woman her age having a cup of milk tea all on her own was indeed slightly unusual around here. I suspected that she didn’t have any grandchildren either. Senior citizens with grandchildren would definitely have no time for tea.
The two women run into each other at the grocery store and Zhuge invites the narrator home for steak and wine. The narrator’s husband is away on business, so the two women head back to Zhuge’s flat. Inside the apartment, the unit is spacious and elegant. The narrator finds no photos of family members, so it becomes quite obvious that Zhuge truly lives alone. Over the course of their friendship, the narrator learns that Zhuge’s husband died a decade earlier and their only child died at the age of five.
One afternoon at the café, while the women meet for tea, another woman barges through the front door and screams at Zhuge, accusing her of homewrecking. After the enraged woman leaves, the narrator asks Zhuge what that was all about. It turns out she ballroom dances in a park and that woman’s husband is simply Zhuge’s dance partner. The two women become close friends until the narrator is transferred to Guangzhou for half a year. When she returns to Shanghai, she can’t find Zhuge at her apartment or at the coffeeshop. It seems that Zhuge had disappeared.
At a chance meeting some years later, the narrator comes into contact with Zhuge’s grandniece and learns that Zhuge not only died a couple years ago, but had also been suffering from cancer for much longer than that.
In another touching story, “The Story of Ah-ming” by Wang Zhanhei and translated by Christopher MacDonald, Ah-ming is a grandmother who starts collecting recyclables to earn a little extra money for her son and his family, and ends up scavenging the garbage bins all day at the apartment complex where she lives. When the story begins, the rubbish collector finds Ah-ming passed out in a rubbish bin. The neighbors look down on her because of her garbage collecting and no one in the apartment complex—or her son and his family—knows she is missing the night she falls asleep in the bin.
To them she was like a rag-picker or tramp. A batty old lady, someone with no family to speak of who’d clearly lost her marbles. She didn’t even come up to the level of the Rubbish Man because she didn’t collect refuse. She had no idea what she was collecting.
Loneliness, it seems, is no respecter of social position; it is especially serious for the elderly, particularly in a dense city like Shanghai. Many of the other stories feature younger characters, but their loneliness is no less palpable. One of the most memorable of these is “The Lost” by Fu Yuehui and translated by Carson Ramsdell. A young editor named Gu Lingzhou sees an unfamiliar name appear on his mobile phone one day at work. It’s a woman who asks him to pick her up because she’s lost her phone and her wallet. She is so adamant that she knows him that it’s difficult for him to say she’s dialed the wrong number. But later on in the conversation, he asks her name and she admits she may have dialed incorrectly. She still asks him to come get her.
Gu Lingzhou hangs up on her and thinks she must be nuts. Yet for the rest of the day, he can’t stop thinking about her and her desperation.
He imagined the scene. Some woman lost in Shanghai, standing under a camphor tree outside a corner shop, gazing up into the branches.
His girlfriend is out of town and he plans to meet a few male friends for dinner that evening, a Friday. Somewhere between leaving his office and entering a taxi, he loses his phone. He can’t find it anywhere. Before they reach the restaurant, Gu Lingzhou asks the cab driver to return to the office building. Perhaps he left it in his office. But that search comes up empty, too. Where could the phone be? He continues on to the restaurant and meets his friends, all while wondering how he was going to handle all those missed calls, texts, and emails now that he didn’t have his phone.
Would his girlfriend worry that he wants to break up or that he dies in a car accident when he doesn’t answer her texts or calls?
He starts imagining he really had been in a car accident. On the way home from work he’d been hit by a car. Died. His phone had been busted, and there was no driver’s license or other identification anywhere to be found to prove who he was. So, just like that, he vanished. He was frightened and dejected, just as if he’d been in a car accident.
All weekend he goes without a phone, he soon resigns himself to having no phone and feels a calmness that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. Yet on Sunday afternoon, he realizes he could buy a new phone. Once he is back online, he sees that he only had seven emails—five from coworkers and two spam—and has zero texts or missed calls. After panicking about his girlfriend jumping to conclusions, he realizes she hasn’t texted or called all weekend. “His world was genuinely silent.” He feels alone and starts to worry about the woman who had called him a few days earlier when she lost her phone. But as much as he tries to find her, calling the number she had used that Friday, he can’t find anyone who knows her—just as it is hard to find anyone who really knows Shanghai. This collection is a start.