An Empty Room by Mu Xin

I’ve been having a hard time deciding how to talk about An Empty Room.  On the one hand, they remind me of a current crop of stories I’ve read by William Maxwell called Billie Dyer and other stories. They have the same vaguely autobiographical nature, a similar meandering spoken wordiness to them that made me think of kneeling on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen as she cooked lunch and talked about when a raccoon was cornered up in the Petry’s barn and they took a dog up on a leash to help flush it out, only to have the coon take off, the dog get overly excited and snap the leash and follow the coon right out the hay loft’s window. Miraculously, the dog was unharmed, though a bit leery of barns afterward.

I would almost call the stories parables. The first story, The Moment Childhood Vanished, recounts a visit to a temple by a boy and his mother, how the boy has a favorite rice bowl, but forgets it at the temple after they have already descended all of the steps and are about to leave. The mother has someone run all the way back to the temple, and fetch bowl, only for the boy to accidentally drop it into the river and watch it sink out of sight. Rather than be angry, the mother simply tells him to come get some tea…that “such things won’t be rare occurrences in the future.” The narrator confesses that this doesn’t become a rare occurrence, and that many things in his life have become lost, and occasionally broken. While this ending doesn’t exactly come out of the blue, if it isn’t hinted at directly in the text, there is a palpable darkness to the story that foreshadows the dark advice of the child’s mother, the ending does pop out in such a way that says, “this is important!”

Eighteen Passangers on a Bus runs a similar path.  The narrator talks about how the place he worked had two vehicles and one driver, Li Shan . He talks about how he wasn’t thrilled with his job and that his wife suggested he get another job. It’s mentioned that the narrator got driving lessons from Li Shan. The bulk of the story is taken with Li Shan being late to drive everyone to a business function. when he shows up, everyone on the bus hassles him, and the narrator eventually defends him, only to be targeted himself. Then Li Shan turns on him, kicks him off the bus, physically knocking him from the side of the vehicle. The narrator watches the bus careen off a cliff, and it ends with the narrator letting us know that it wasn’t one thing, but an accumulation of things that had pushed Li Shan over the edge towards killing everyone on the bus.  Li Shan driving everyone off the highway and sending everyone in the bus to their death is part of the story, but what it dovetails with is the earlier unhappiness felt by the narrator over his own life. Knowing that it wasn’t just one thing, but an accumulation of things, that finally pushed Li Shan to desperation, we are reminded of the vague unhappiness the narrator was suffering from earlier.

I think it’s significant that this isn’t really a standalone collection of stories, but apparently some form of a collection that the author picked from three earlier volumes of short stories. Despite this, it still reads as a coherent whole, it doesn’t read like a random “Best Of” collection, but a group of stories chosen to explore a theme, idea or form.  I find it similar to Billie Dyer and Other Stories by William Maxwell, or, as I said earlier, a collection of parables. The fact that the collection begins with an allusion to childhood and ends with a cemetery lends to the biographical air of the collection, and to the idea that it could also be a collection roughly documenting the arc of life.  On impulse, near the physical center of the book (the collection stretchs roughly 145 pages, this story began on page 75), there is a story about a young man spending a summer with an aunt and uncle who get along, but who have never really talked about an event earlier in their marriage, though each has their suppositions. However, the lack of communication has tainted their marriage for years. I don’t think it is an accident that this comes roughly in the center of the collection, with a younger person being shown mistakes to avoid in the second half of his life.

Alright, this has gotten a bit rambly, so I’m just going to cut it off here. I think the areas of interest for me are how the stories resemble parables, the collection roughly mirroring the course of a life, and how the main characters in a number of the stories are impacted by events, but aren’t necessarily the main actors, and aren’t always sure why the events transpiring around them are taking place.

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