Photo by Giada Rdipa Di Meana

Banned by the Chinese government when it was first published four years ago, Candy is difficult to like — and difficult to let go. Novelist Mian Mian writes of sly Shanghai prostitutes, beautifully tragic musicians and lost girls trying to find themselves in love, all ensnared by China’s halting, headlong rush toward modernization. Partially set in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, where the Communist government first experimented with a limited form of free trade, Candy shifts between unselfconscious naiveté and an underlying sureness that suggests a wise old country’s wide-eyed encounters with a crazy new world.

Hong, an aspiring young singer and writer who moves to Shenzhen, falls in love with Saining, a doomed rock & roller who makes her as happy as a goth kid listening to Morrissey on a rainy day. The two make music together, and become addicted to alcohol and heroin separately. They try to leave each other in Beijing and in Shanghai, but cannot escape the simple-minded chaos and sickening pull of self-destructive, self-generating love. The characters in Candy live a life that would have been impossible in China just 10 years ago. “We’d grown up on movies from the Soviet Union and North Korea, but now we listened to music from England and sat in our kitchens eating instant noodles, wondering if we had AIDS,” Mian Mian writes. “We smoked marijuana from Xinjiang, popped three-yuan-a-bottle pills, and once we got high, we could listen to punk rock and tell ourselves it was a rave. What did we care? We were so sick of waiting.”

Before Candy was published, Mian Mian was an underground figure who promoted shows and appeared in avant-garde literary magazines. Afterward she was widely pirated and translated, her much-publicized literary spat with another hot Shanghai writer the subject of international gossip. “I used to be underground, now I’m a media phenomenon,” Mian Mian told me during an e-mail interview that took place a month before the release of Candy’s English edition. “After Candy I became a very famous writer here in China, I married and had a daughter, I divorced. Before I always wanted a lover, but now it’s not important.”

What is still important, what has remained important, is storytelling. In the book, Hong is a singer verging on success until her voice is ruined by alcohol and heroin. She turns to songwriting, then to writing stories. “Fate put a pen in my hand,” Hong says, “and my dad said, ‘If you want to write, you don’t have to get a job.’ The sky is all lit up and that bright sky illuminates my devastation, illuminates my prayers, and I tell myself: You can be a naked writer.”

Similarly, Mian Mian admits that she became a writer “probably because I couldn’t be a singer. My voice is fucked up because I took too many drugs. But I guess writing chose me. I have a talent for it that I can’t explain, nor would I want to if I could.” Still, she insists that she is not Hong. In the last section of Candy, Mian Mian writes, “I am a ditch where water has collected after the rain, my name is Mian Mian and this story is not the story of my life. My life story will have to wait until I can write nakedly. That’s my dream.” When I ask whether she’s learned to be a naked writer, Mian Mian does not reply.

In her visceral style, Mian Mian charts the human body with all of its limbs and teeth, its pretty face and scarred genitals, its desires and diseases, the way it gets trapped in addiction and released on the dance floor. Emotion is laid out like an open palm, vulnerable and undoctored. You half want to be drawn into her world of sadness and slouchy ennui, half want to shake her and say, “Sit up straight!” Mian Mian herself, at least over e-mail, is just as up-front, as willing to make an indie-rock ballad of her life. Besides writing, she is also deeply involved in the music scene. “I don’t make music, but I make music happen,” she says. Her Chinese agent owns Modern Sky, the first company to seriously publish and promote rock bands in China. And she’s involved in bringing DJs to the country, even venturing back to Shenzhen with Paul Oakenfold.

“That was the first time I’d been back in five years. And Paul was the only reason why I’d go back to that city again. I have so many memories of suffering there so I was scared to go out, I only stayed in the hotel and the clubs last time. I could feel the city is much more in control now, but the scent of danger is still in the air, just outside my window.”

Candy helped make Mian Mian the bad chick of Shanghai’s arts scene, but the scene itself might never have existed if she hadn’t been around. “I changed the youth culture in this country,” she says. “I’m one of the first people to organize rave parties in China. So for me dancing isn’t just about going out on the dance floor, it’s a way of life. And when I’m out there on the dance floor it gives me the feeling of love. Better than sex with a stranger. Clubbing in Shanghai is the best movie I can have.”

Her book might be honest and uncompromising, but Mian Mian seems more interested in her life as a story, endlessly told and larger than life. When asked if she’s resolved her love-hate relationship with Shanghai, she replies: “Shanghai is the only city I want to live in because the taxis here are really cheap. It’s safe. Shanghai is a fiction. And so many interesting people pass through here and they all want to see me. It’s like I’m the queen. The only downside is that it looks like it’s impossible for me to find a lover in this city. I guess nobody wants to fuck the queen. They all say you’re the lover of my soul, you’re the lover of my life.”

CANDY | By MIAN MIAN | Back Bay Books | 224 pages | $14 paperback

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