Review: Eric Williams on Can Xue’s Experimental Novella Mystery Train

There is a letter that Dante wrote to his patron, the powerful warlord of Verona Cangrande della Scala, in which the poet explains that, with regard to his work, “… non est simplex sensus, immo dici potest polysemos, hoc est plurium sensum,” meaning, roughly, that his Comedy “… hasn’t a simple meaning, rather it can be said to be polysemous, with many meanings.” This advice from the 14th century stands the reader of Can Xue in good stead today. Her experimental fiction seems dense with allegory, hidden meanings, polysemantic secrets. Indeed, Can Xue gives us a similarly Dantean exhortation in the preface to her novella Mystery Train (translated wonderfully by Natascha Bruce), urging us to “break away from the life you see on the surface” and explore “inner, more fundamental” lives via a whirlwind of strange characters and weird situations in her writing.

Mystery Train begins when Scratch, a worker from a chicken farm on a feed buying trip, awakens in darkness as the train he’s riding lurches to a sudden stop. Somewhere, invisible in the darkened cabin, another passenger is snoring loudly; later, Scratch will be joined by an unseen policeman who, between titanic rages, loudly devours a chicken lunch, bones and all. The weirdness of these two is dwarfed by the figure of the conductor of the train, a melancholic man who visited with Scratch extensively during the trip, monologuing about his past and his life and who warned Scratch of the brutal cold that would strike the train once it stopped. All of these characters are marvelously suggestive, hinting at hidden motives and obscure symbolism, nightmare figures whose strange interactions gesture towards some primal mystery.

The same dreamlike quality is found in Scratch’s character too. His narration is a leaping, free-associating, stream-of-conscious monologue that veers wildly across the emotional spectrum; one minute, Scratch is remembering his boss at the chicken farm with fond affection and lamenting that he hadn’t worked harder for the dear old fellow, but then, wait, hold on, Scratch remembers that actually the guy was a bastard and an idiot, a rube worthy only of contempt and pity. Later, Scratch will assign sinister motives to his employer for why he of all people at the chicken farm was sent on this feed buying trip. These sudden and dramatic shifts in perspective and tone from a single character reproduce the delirious logic of a dream, an effect sharpened by the relatively simple cadence of the sentences and the straightforwardness of the words used to tell the story in Mystery Train.      

Can Xue ratchets the hypnogogic portentousness all the way up when she introduces us to Birdie, an enormous carnal psychopomp with half a face that stalks Scratch through the darkened train. She overwhelms both Scratch and us with her strange vitality and, in the final section of the book, Birdie offers a key to the preceding events and characters that, while not throwing open the whole story, at least gives us a foot in the door.

The hazards of experimental fiction, its tendency to navel-gaze or indulge in self-satisfaction, are ably and expertly avoided by Can Xue. Mystery Train is a lean 162 pages, the prose propulsive and the weirdness, like all good fever dreams, is dynamic and original and unrelenting. Just when you think maybe you’re starting to get a hang of this bizarre train, you’re thrown into a wolf-haunted wilderness of snow and tents and mud. The power of the work is that Can Xue, who wrote a commentary of Dante around the time she originally wrote Mystery Train, takes Dante’s polysemous approach seriously—there is not a “right” answer to what all this means. There are many meanings, and Can Xue respects us enough to let us explore them all right there along with Scratch.

Mystery Train, by Can Xue. Translated by Natascha Bruce. Seattle, Washington: Sublunary Editions, October 2022. 162 pages. $18.00, paper.

Eric Williams is a writer living on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyProtean, and Firmament, and he’s been nominated for a Pushcart and Best Small Fictions. His first book, Toadstones, is a collection of short stories firmly in the tradition of the weird tale. He has a website ( and he’s @Geo_Liminal on Twitter.

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