Just as I’ve found that novellas often focus intensely on a sole protagonist, it seems they are also well-suited to narrowing in geographically and temporally, providing a detailed sense of a given place and its social mores. Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (translated by Canaan Morse and published as NYRB Classics Original), at an estimated 40,000 words, takes us into the urban spaces of modern Beijing as we follow the troubles of Mr Cui, an audiophile who makes money sourcing, building, and installing high-end custom stereo systems for wealthy clients.
Geographically, the novella charts a course around Beijing, from the opening page where a residential apartment complex “sits on the eastern edge of the Winter Palace, with its northern face hugging the flyovers of the north Fifth Ring Road”, to traditional and renovated inner-Beijing hutong, the central shopping district of Wangfujing, the Maliandao tea market, and the city’s outskirts where the wealthy, “even at the edges of a foul, trash-infested city […] always find a way to hunt down the last patches of pristine territory and claim them as their own.”
The recently-divorced Cui is barely getting by. His ex-wife Yufen, who matter-of-factly left him for her boss, visits him only when her new husband, Director Luo, needs some technical help from Cui, or for sex—“she hadn’t had a single orgasm in the four months ” since she’d married Luo. Flattery gets her what she wants and Cui has sex with her but feels guilty, advising her to never return. Meanwhile, his sister, Cui Lihua, and her husband are scheming to take back her apartment that Cui has been living in since his divorce, and his childhood friend Jiang Songping has little sympathy. Cui’s clients are divided into two main groups: intellectuals that he describes as “sanctimonious” and “inconsistent”; and “business owners of varying degrees of wealth” that he meets via so-called “fishing”—introductions from Jiang Songping, demonstrating the importance of networking and connections. Yet connections can only get you so far, and Jiang Songping is unwilling to help Cui with his pending homelessness.
Ge Fei shows us a highly consumerist, dog-eat-dog Beijing where everyone, even close family, are out for themselves. In an interview with The Paris Review, he responded:
“With The Invisibility Cloak, I thought back to 1980, when I was an undergraduate in Shanghai and I felt that life for Chinese people was extremely spiritually rich. People didn’t care about material possessions so much, they didn’t care about clothes, what shoes you wore, what kind of watch you wore, they didn’t care if you knew rich people. In fact, wealth was held in contempt. Every weekend my friends would go to classical-music concerts—Bach, Beethoven, Haydn. Twenty-some years later, the change that’s occurred in this respect is unbelievable—from an incredibly rich spiritual life to a total lack of spiritual enrichment. Materialism is the word of the day. Money. Advancement. I wanted to add clarity to the meaning of classical music, what it meant to the people who lived through that earlier time.”
Cui has a certain idealism, having found in his audiophile business that he has never been ripped off when sourcing components online with payment upfront. He attributes this to “a higher-than-average ethical conscience among members of the community”. Such idealism is challenged by events in the novella as they unfold with a mix of both comical and noirish elements. Opportunity appears when he’s asked to source “the best sound system in the world” for a mysterious underworld figure, and here he meets characters who appear shadowy on the surface but are in fact less duplicitous than his own friends and family. As the plot unfolds, we sense Cui gradually turning into an almost-Bartleby figure. He came to a realisation at a young age that:
The best attributes of anyone or anything usually reside on the surface, which is where, in fact, all of us live out our lives. Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone. For as soon as you poke a hole through that paper window, most of what’s inside simply won’t stand up to scrutiny.
The scrutiny and experience that comes with age ultimately lead Cui beyond the surface of things, shaking off the superficial in order to embrace the meaningful. Again, Ge Fei in The Paris Review:
“The writing and structure of this book have a deep connection to a question that’s chased me all my life. When everything is moving in one direction—toward money, advancement, and feeling insecure about it—are there people out there who intentionally go the other way?”
What if he would prefer not to hold the same ideals as those around him, and mildly shift into a new life?
The skewering satire and social commentary in this novella are worn quite heavily—particularly against the endless theorising of academics—but it’s a quick and enjoyable read that brings the dynamism of modern Beijing to life; a strong sense of place and a story that combines the comic with a touch of darkness and mystery, all with a satisfying turn in its tail. I’ll end with a phrase that appears twice in the book, and that rewards close attention: “Try to be perfect, and where’s the fun?”