Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 18, 2011

Loose (2011), by Ouyang Yu

Loose A Wild HistoryHaving read a couple of somewhat shallow books, I wanted to be sure that my next venture would challenge me.  Loose by Ouyang Yu had been on my TBR since the day I bought it at the Melbourne launch at Readings and I also had a review copy from Wakefield Press to give away to one of my readers, so it fitted the bill perfectly.

I’m not doing the giveaway in the way that I usually do as a separate post – because I want to be sure that this book finds a welcoming home.  Ouyang Yu is a provocative, bawdy, iconoclastic author, and while The English Class was comprehensible as a novel, Loose is something else again.  It plunges the reader into uncertainty right from the beginning, because while it’s badged as a novel, it reads like a crazy personal memoir of events in Beijing and in Melbourne which are cobbled together from diary entries and memories not in chronological order.   Yu’s voice reflecting on this-and-that gives the reader something to think about on every page, but making sense of the whole is like trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle together when you haven’t been told that you’ve actually got two different puzzles in the box, which by the way has a picture of neither on the lid.  It can be done, but it takes patience, skill and a very good memory for what you’ve encountered before.

The reason one might bother to do this is because (as with the jigsaw puzzles analogy) the sense of triumphant accomplishment and reward is so great.  (It’s a little like reading The Unfortunates by B S Johnson in that respect, though the pages in Loose are at least bound together!)  Just as the pictures in the muddled jigsaws would gradually reveal themselves to the puzzler’s delight, so too does Yu’s narrative.  And along the way there are so many fascinating ideas to provoke and amuse the reader!

If at times it feels as if Yu has simply torn out the pages of his diaries and thrown them up in the air before reassembling them into a weird miscellany, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as pointless artifice:

Back on a Friday night from seeing a film by Zhang Yimou in Cinema Nova.  It’s just the kind of stuff I am writing or attempting to write here.  Raw, tough, stubborn, unpolished and resistant to any Western attempt to polish it to a bestselling level, to commodify it.

After a late dinner at home, I said again that in a way the Chinese are more inventive and original in the field of art making by comparison with their Western counterparts because they are willing to sacrifice what they have achieved and are willing to try new ways.  Just look at those so-called Oscar nominations.  They use the best actors and actresses in the world, that is, their own world that does not represent the rest of the world, and award them with this and that, but they will never take any risks that may result in non-profitmaking business.  To be a real artist, you have to put art before everything else and be willing to try anything.

I don’t know why but it seems that the longer I live in the West or Australia the less respect I have for its art, simply because it is all geared up for the market and profitmaking.  And sometimes I can’t help feeling that I am being turned into a commodity.  Perhaps the best way to deal with this is to acknowledge that you are not an artist, you know nothing about art, you do nothing artistic for the sake of money, and you only do something that you know you probably do not know how to do but like to do and would like to experiment with – basically, you have to decommodify yourself.

(And note, by the way, that it is a small independent publisher that has taken the risk in publishing this book, not a large concern that could well afford to subsidise the publication of ground-breaking, culture-blending writing that might not make a profit).

While Yu makes the point that he feels at home neither in Australia nor in China, one of his preoccupations is to correct misconceptions about his birthplace.  He says that the notion of Chinese puritanism derives from Marxism, ‘an aberrant Western thing’, and it reigned for forty years from 1949.  Traditionally, sexual description ‘is at least as powerful and energetic or as obscene and dirty as French or English, if not more’ (p49) and so (amongst other things) he sets out to ‘deconstruct’ the idea that ‘Chinese language is some sort of pure thing that never allows any obscenity’ .  He does this, confrontingly, with passages that show the sexual liberation of contemporary China.  Occasionally this is funny, as in the limerick about the ‘6 decades of man’ and its sly allusion to microsoft (that missing capital letter is deliberate).  Mostly, it is unpleasant.  Very unpleasant.

On the other hand there are snippets of thought-provoking poetry and occasional full length ones, and the comparisons of life in China with Australia are intriguing.  Chinese, for example, will lend a colleague a computer or a bicycle, but Australians are nonplussed by the idea of lending a tool to a neighbour.  (That’s generally true in my experience too: though I did once borrow an extra ladder to make a trestle when house-painting.  But I suspect that this isn’t an attitudinal difference – it’s simply that in a  wealthy country like Australia people can usually afford to have their own things and don’t need to borrow.)

Although there are droll aspects to this book, the plight of Ouyang Yu’s brother Ming is sombre reading.  He died as a result of police torture because he was an adherent of Falun Gong.  In this book he appears in memory and in dreams, and the reader can sense the fierce grief that surrounds his presence.  Yu also shares the alienation common to many migrants and expats: raw, confused and angry, unfiltered by good manners towards the host culture, unpolished about the pain in such experiences as being abroad when a parent dies and unable to attend the funeral.

Beverly Farmer, who also writes about the experience of ‘being foreign’ (in Greece), says in A Body of Water that there is

No point in fiction which doesn’t in some way expand, at least redefine, the boundaries of what fiction has said and been (fiction is what it says).  (p196)

But as far as I know there are few writers in Australia engaged in Yu’s kind of energetic literary experimentation, and I suspect that any of them would face the same struggle to be published because of their lack of commercial viability.  The three that I know of are all published by Giramondo, a small independent publisher: Gerald Murnane is postmodern too, but  in Inland and The Plains his literary landscapes are imaginary.  Brian Castro (whose backlist is published by Wakefield) in Drift and The Bath Fugues shares Ouyang Yu’s interest in cross-cultural currents but his work is more urbane.  Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (which I’ve read but not reviewed here on this blog) swirls around to blend ancient indigenous myths with the politics of contemporary Aboriginal Australia.  I find this kind of writing exhilarating, difficult though it is to read.

Now, if having read the above, you are interested in reading this book, AND you are willing to review it either on your own blog or GoodReads or Library Thing, please register your interest in comments below, with a link to somewhere that I can find your reviews as evidence of good faith.  I want to give this author the opportunity for publicity here on the web: I want this book to go viral somehow amongst those who like and admire this kind of writing.  This is because I think that (along with Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane) Yu is a possible candidate for a Nobel Prize in LiteraturePatrick White’s achievement was ‘for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’ and I think Ouyang Yu is introducing to literature both the truth of Australia as an immigrant nation and the concept of an Australian as a reluctant and sometimes hostile hybrid of disparate cultures.  He’s also experimenting with raw, unfiltered, unpolished writing of a brutal and confronting honesty.

But I know that I haven’t read enough of this kind of writing for my instinctive judgement to have much credibility and so I’m hoping that there’s someone out there reading this blog who has the expertise to evaluate Loose as it deserves.  I am willing to post the book overseas to the right person…

There is so much more I could say about this book but this post is 1500 words already so it’s time to stop.

Author: Ouyang Yu
Title: Loose
With translations by the author
Publisher: Wakefield Press 2011
Source: A review copy was sent to me by Wakefield Press, but I already had a copy of my own, purchased at the launch at Readings in Carlton ($32.95). (Wakefield’s copy is therefore the one up for giveaway).

Direct from Wakefield Press Online
Fishpond: Loose: A Wild History
PS The English Class is published by Transit Lounge, anoher indie publisher here in Melbourne.


  1. This is a writer I’ve only really heard about on your blog, so I would love a chance to read one of his works :) As for proof of my credentials, well I think you may have seen my blog around ;)


    • Indeed yes, Tony – you are on my blogroll, and I would be most interested to see what you think of it. (Though I am not on yours, you don’t have one, why is that?)


  2. I swing between having one and not, partly for clutter reasons (i.e. too many boxes on the side), partly so as not to offend those who aren’t there ;)


    • *chuckle* Ooh, yes, it’s easy to offend like that. I’m sure I’m offending heaps of people!


      • It has happened to me once, and I’ve seen many offended comments on the topic on other blogs too – sometimes it’s best to just keep your list private…


        • Yes…but I’ve found so many good blogs from other blogrolls!


  3. And of course I’d be interested though the Man Asian and current reading would have priority so it would be more like March before I get to it.


  4. Thanks for the heads-up, Lisa. I’d love to be considered for this giveaway, and would be glad to read / review the book. If you’re interested to see reviews I’ve already done, they’re at: . (I’m not as prolific a reviewer as you are!) Best always.


  5. Hi Lisa – if you’d like an over-seas reviewer I’d be up for the challenge – although I’d feel a little bad about you posting it at your own expense…it would have to be a swap!


    • Don’t you worry about the postage, Troy, you can shout me a glass of Tempranillo next time I’m in Barcelona:)

      *mutter* Now that the offers are coming in, I realise I have no idea how to choose who gets it…


  6. He he! I was wondering how you were going to do that :) Rather you than me! But don’t sweat it – there’ll be no ill will.


    • Where would you put your review, on Good Reads?


  7. Yep. It would have to be one of those long enough to stay near the top but not too long to scare readers off kind of reviews!


    • *chuckle* And rig it by getting all your friends to ‘like it’ at suitable intervals!


  8. I’ve just seen that it’s only you and one other on GR at the moment, so probably best to send it to a blogger who gets more exposure (even though it does sound rather interesting and I’d like to read it!).


    • No, no, no, this book is going to go viral (i hope) via the cognoscenti (did I spell that right?) It’s not a numbers thing, it’s a network thing….
      I wish I had 20 copies.


      • Good luck with the offers!


  9. Very nice to see a review of Yu’s book. But there are a couple of generalisations which reveal the reverse othering of Yu’s Other, the host culture of “Australia”.

    The first is
    ‘Chinese, for example, will lend a colleague a computer or a bicycle, but Australians are nonplussed by the idea of lending a tool to a neighbour.’

    The second is:
    ‘But as far as I know there are few writers in Australia engaged in Yu’s kind of energetic literary experimentation,’

    Well, yes, Yu is unique in the way he experiments, but there are plenty of experimenters out there, doing different things, energetically. I would take Yu’s exaggerations and generalisations as polemical tools with which he gets under the skin of Australians.


    • Hello Adam, thanks for joining the conversation….

      I’m not sure who you mean is generalising to reveal the ‘reverse othering’: the comment about the borrowing is from the book – it’s what Ouyang thinks; but the comment about there being few experimental writers (which was hedged with ‘as far as I know’) is what I think.

      One of the questions that Ouyang raises is about who ‘Australians’ are. IMO they are not just people who might be provoked by what this provocative writer says. They are also people who *share* his conflicted experience or that of Rosa Cappiello in ‘Oh Lucky Country’ (see I say, let’s hear more of their voices in literature, and no, they don’t have to sacrifice honesty for polite or bland discourse.


  10. […] or to buy his books, visit his website.  (I’ve reviewed his novels The English Class, and Loose and I profiled Ouyang in Meet an Aussie […]


  11. […] I had read barely a page of two of Drift before I realised where I had recently seen a similar sort of technique.  I’ve only read one book by Ouyang Yu (The English Class, see my thoughts here), but I went to the launch of Loose a little while ago, and I read a good bit of it over dinner while I was waiting for things to get started.  As with Drift I was soon chuckling over my pasta, flipping backwards and forwards over the pages to tie fragments of text together, groaning over the puns and wondering where this adventure might take me.  I put reluctantly put Loose aside because I was already reading other things at home and it must wait its turn, but I know I’m going to like it, and I know it’s a very classy book that belongs in my list of Nobel nominees. Update: See my review here). […]


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