BRAISED PORK, the debut novel by An Yu, opens with an ending. A young wife walks into the bathroom to ask which accessory her husband prefers and finds him sprawled ungracefully in the tub, drowned. Next to his body is a strange drawing: a fish with the head of a man, or a man with the body of a fish, depending on how you choose to look at it.
The young wife, it turns out, is an artist, and her name is Jia Jia. As she struggles to define herself in new terms in the wake of her husband’s death, putting her apartment on the market and once more taking up painting in earnest, Jia Jia also begins to investigate the origins of the fish symbol.
Perhaps because of this foundational logic — the mysterious loss of a partner or love interest leads the protagonist on an unexpected journey — Braised Pork has invited the inevitable comparisons to the work of Haruki Murakami. In his novels, it is somehow always women who go missing. The presence of a jazz-loving barman doesn’t hurt. But unlike Murakami’s whimsical, magical realist plots, Braised Pork’s central journey is interior: the incremental and circuitous process of a human mind trying to come to terms with itself. Reading, I thought not of Murakami but of Freud.
Braised Pork is replete with art-induced trances, studied repression, dream logic, symbols that hold more meaning than initially anticipated, and the oceanic unconscious into which Jia Jia descends during sleep. An early conversation about the difficulty of painting water provides a sort of road map for the book’s theory of personality, our inability to see ourselves fully. The novel asks: how can you hope to represent something in a constant state of flux, to fix it to the page?
As the shape of her new life comes into focus, Jia Jia finds herself drinking in a bar down the street; the establishment’s lone bartender, Leo, is a cool character who pours her good brandy and lets her smoke inside once the other customers leave. For a little while, a love story threatens to overtake the central mystery; maybe Leo, who sees his customer with a clarity that evaded her late husband, will be the thing that allows Jia Jia to fully shed the entrapments of her old life. The first time they sleep together, Jia Jia doesn’t think to hide a plum-colored birthmark on her thigh that she always strove to conceal from Chen Hang, whose obvious distaste for the mark led her to try to fuck in ways she assumed would “better shield the imperfection […] pretending it was for her own pleasure.” But the kind of easy intimacy that develops between them can still fall short: “Just because you understand someone doesn’t make them any easier to deal with,” Leo tells her later on.
Leo, who dismisses his last girlfriend as a “bad hangover,” may be a rare outlier in Jia Jia’s world, where no one seems to truly understand their friends, relatives, or lovers. The braised pork dish of the title turns out to be a sort of madeleine, and Jia Jia’s family is slowly revealed to be the source of her deepest worries and her drive for this investigation into the past — even though on a conscious level she doesn’t know it when she first starts out.
Once she really begins to grasp for them, Jia Jia realizes that she “could not remember the details, only the existence of details” about her childhood. Yu’s detached narrative style reflects her own inability to process the significance of her own life.
Writing to his friend Oskar Pollak in 1904, Franz Kafka described the “frozen sea inside” all human beings. Jia Jia’s soul is more iced over than most. Our protagonist learned repression early on: watching her grandmother muffle her sobs with a pillow the day her mother died, she understood that it would be easier to conceal her own feelings than risk distressing others. Her renunciation of the artistic ambitions she harbored in favor of a materially comfortable but emotionless life with Chen Hang sends her into an even deeper winter of the spirit.
Now, though, she begins to chip away. Kafka’s tonic of choice was literature; Jia Jia’s artistic ambitions represent another mode of unraveling these tangled and long-forgotten emotions. She tries to capture the fish-man on canvas, but its likeness eludes her; later, she’s commissioned to paint a Buddha at the home of a wealthy film editor, which provokes a strange waking trance.
But the best access point to these long-buried memories lies in dreams. It’s only at night when the memory of the fish-man’s face comes back to her. During the novel’s first dream sequence, Jia Jia gropes for the floor but finds it replaced by “the surface of a deep sea, as if she was sitting on the edge of a ship watching the reflection of the starless sky in the water. The darkness rippled like silk.” Swimming toward a distant light, “she spotted a small silver creature beneath her, swimming around in circles. She thought she could make out a tiny fish with a sharp tail, shining like glitter.”
As Jia Jia heads further down her path, the dream states become darker and more sinister, leading her directly back to a central trauma she’s all but forgotten about. Reading along, you experience the feeling of slowly lowering your body into a dark pool, letting the water rise: now to your shoulders, now to your chin, now — ceasing to breathe — to the bridge of your nose.
This is a haunting, coolly written novel: deeply psychological but utterly lacking in theory or jargon. Yu’s sentences are unadorned, neither lyrical nor terse. Many are awkward, but this didn’t detract from the book’s appeal for me; if anything, I appreciated the rare refusal to mimic the looping sentences of lyrical prose stylists.
Though Braised Pork is not particularly special on the sentence level, individual scenes and descriptions have an impact that seems to bypass language and go straight to feeling. One of the strongest scenes finds Jia Jia rushing back and forth between two shopping malls to try to find gifts for Leo’s parents. Through her struggle to select an appropriate and reasonably priced gift, her emotional distress sank into my body in a way that recalled the vicarious rage that readers of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment have described. Yu’s prose reflected back to me a panicky feeling I sometimes get while shopping, some anxiety at the nexus of money, style, and body horror that makes me feel like I’m making a series of wrong and irreversible decisions. The novel is also intensely atmospheric. Certain settings remain in my head like filmic images: the crowded confines of Jia Jia’s childhood home, with its glowing aquarium; the sleek, modern lines of her lonely apartment; Leo’s bar, with its candlelit glow and high ceilings.
Though Yu does a wonderful job conveying the social paradoxes of contemporary Beijing — an aunt’s bribery-laden get-rich-quick schemes, Leo’s parents’ consternation upon learning that their son’s girlfriend has been widowed rather than divorced — a trip to Tibet to follow the trail of the fish symbol is oddly shorn of political or social reality. Ironically, comparisons to Murakami felt most warranted during this section of the novel, but Tibet is a freighted destination for a Chinese character in a way that Murakami’s Grecian climes just aren’t for his wandering protagonists. The place feels like a backdrop for Jia Jia’s personal quest, serving merely to provide a sense of difference, and it all comes off as the equivalent of a white backpacker going on a journey of self-discovery to a country their nation colonized.
The journey is also an endless rabbit hole. Jia Jia never fully finds her way back to Leo, and certain mysteries — Chen Hang’s death, Jia Jia’s mother’s depression, the fish-man himself — are never unraveled. This, ultimately, is the most realist thing about this novel: missed connections, inexplicable loss, and random coincidence are mostly the way life goes. Jia Jia’s fate is the best any of us can hope for: to accept the unknowable and just keep moving.