“Five Spice Street” is a ridiculous novel. Can Xue, it’s nothing personal. In fact, I admire you because I think that you meant to make this book as alluringly pointless as possible, and you succeeded. It’s taken me four years to read all 329 pages of “Five Spice Street,” and even after all this time, I’m still trying to understand its message. There’s a reason for that.
Can Xue’s “Five Spice Street” chronicles the life of a mysterious woman named Madam X, who readers only know through other people’s accounts. No one knows her actual age (there is an entire chapter dedicated to 28 views of how old she actually is) or her origins. It’s as if she just appeared out of the blue one day on the three-mile stretch of Five Spice Street, and, rather than speaking to her directly and putting an end to their doubts and uncertainties, residents perpetuate her enigmatic reputation by discussing her. As a reader, I wonder if this Madam X even exists, or if she’s merely a product of the extreme boredom of the residents of Five Spice Street.
Either way, “Five Spice Street” itself is unsettling, indistinct both as a place and a story in that readers will never know what is real or unreal. This uncertainty, which permeates the entire atmosphere of the novel, causes the audience to feel a continual sense of doom derived from doubt. As the narrator states, “[N]o one could produce reliable information; even the shortcuts we tried all failed. We could only ‘sit and wait’ for Madam X to betray herself.” Both the residents and readers are waiting for the truth to come out about Madam X. The fact that it took me four years to finish this book, then, seems justified considering that its central element consists of a person who might not even exist.
What also makes this novel bizarre is the residents’ self-awareness about their infatuation with Madam X. Residents undoubtedly suffer from an extreme lack of stimuli, which they supplement through gossip about another kind of absence: that of information about the questionable Madam X. Each chapter chronicles various rumors about Madam X’s sexual escapades and other mischievous acts. However, the residents’ accounts cannot be backed up by physical evidence and follow no set timeline. As a result, Madam X is “both corporeal and non-existent….One can’t reach a conclusion about any of her activities through logic and reason, because this person is an assumption that might not be true. The only true existence is the illusion, the foggy mist that aroused our enormous interest.”
The residents of Five Spice Street are bored; they are petty, and they are desperate. And Madam X is everything they are not. She is exciting, she is playful, and she does not care. She will have sex with someone’s husband during the witching hour every night until he is overcome by guilt, and she will make residents whisper about her until they lose their sense of reality.
Not only is Madam X an enigma, she is also a form onto which residents can project their deepest, wildest fantasies. One resident says of the scandalous affair between Madam X and her long-term “lover” Mr. Q, “The furtive personal relationship between X and Q had become the spiritual sustenance for everyone on Five Spice Street. On the surface, we disavowed this, even scorned it, but in fact—night after night—everyone was caught up in dreams. Each one took part in the game, imagining themselves the leading actor.”
Ultimately, much as the residents project their subconscious fantasies, fears, and desires onto Madam X, the readers dwell into the realm of their imagination when interacting with this story. Reading “Five Spice Street” means entering unbounded territory, a space with no beginning or end. According to the narrator, the story has no beginning or ending: “If earth and sun collide, the story may end but will no doubt begin again on another planet.”
Therefore it’s up to you, as the reader, to decide how to make the most of “Five Spice Street” and seek your own meaning in a story so endless in its potentialities, speculations, and oddities.