The plot centers around Xiao Shiyi Lang (literally “The Eleventh Son” of the title), who gets mixed up in a plot to steal the “Deer Carver” saber, an extraordinary blade in the care of the “Six Ideal Gentlemen.” But the real meat of the story revolves around the love triangle built between Xiao, unfairly referred to as the “Great Bandit,” Lian Chengbi, the leader of the Ideal Gentlemen who have it in for Xiao Shiyi Lang, and his beautiful wife, Shen Bijun. Xiao absconds from the search for the blade before it is recovered, and in the process ends up saving Shen Bijun from the villainous “Little Mister,” who not only stole the blade, but killed one of the ideal gentlemen and burned down Shen’s ancestral home, framing Xiao for the whole mess.
After saving her life multiple times, Shen finds herself caught between her duty as the wife of the cultured and respected Lian Chengbi and her sense of justice. Lian and his associates intend to kill Xiao Shiyi Lang regardless of his innocence or his efforts to save Shen’s life. Her growing feelings for Xiao, his barely concealed feelings for her, and the quickly revealed corruption of the leaders in the “martial order” complicate Shen’s situation further.
Gu’s themes are drawn rather broadly and he has no problem interjecting himself in expository passages. The story makes Xiao into a sort of martyred free spirit, a noble vagrant victimized by the hypocrisy of an upper-class in the martial order who seek to control everything through duty, coercion, or simple lies that nobody bothers to question. We witness Shen Bijun caught in her duty to her husband, who is as close to true gentleman that anybody described in the novel seems to get, and her love for Xiao Shiyi Lang, to whom she owes a degree of loyalty and not just because she loves him. Lian is not a horrible person, but he is neglectful and a part of the unjust confederacy of martial artists that wants to do away with the righteous Xiao because he is powerful enough to endanger their schemes. But Shen’s own sense of righteousness will not allow her to be unfaithful to her husband or to abandon Xiao.
And besides the personal drama, Gu draws a martial order controlled by a sub- Nietzschean puppet master who fancies himself beyond not only conventional morality, but humanity. He claims to be a god, and the novel spends an extended interlude illustrating one of his ludicrous methods of controlling people and conditioning their behavior. There’s a sort of free will versus determinism argument happening in these chapters, which reflect a similar conflict happening in the rest of the plot: the conflict between Xioa’s free-spirited wandering and the duty of the martial world, between Shen Bijun’s duty and her feelings.
It’s a shame that Gu’s characterization falters after the first act. Xiao, who Gu casts very well as a lovable rogue in the early portions of the story, is a sad-sack drunk for much of the rest of the novel, and is thoroughly unlikable. Shen is much too fragile and helpless, which, when contrasted against the other female characters in the novel, is presented as something of a virtue. Xiao seems to enjoy her neediness; it’s almost seems to be what he loves about her. I’d consider that a character flaw, but Gu sentimentalizes helplessness and victimization -- alcoholism too.
Gu Long was famously alcoholic. Drank himself to death, in fact. He also had notorious affairs and two illegitimate children. I find it difficult not to read Xiao as a stand-in for the author, a handsome, impossibly stoic, unusually intelligent, superbly masculine, painfully misunderstood stand-in. The author is tied up in knots of self-pity regarding women and duty and alcohol. It seems we’re reading his wish-fulfillment fantasies. This leaves something of a bad aftertaste, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is the author, rather than his protagonist and narrator, who is tied up in knots about women and sentimental about his addictions.
The plotting gets a bit unclear as well. As soon as Xiao abandons the search for the Deer Carver, the narration does too, although a careful reader will realize that the plot-line is actually wrapped up once the villain and his motives are revealed.
But for all that, The Eleventh Son is fantastic entertainment, owing much to Gu’s idiosyncratic style. I mentioned the film adaptations of Gu’s work, and it seems to me that his writing style lends itself well to cinema.
Watching Chu Yuan’s adaptations, and the Taiwanese films of directors like Cheung Paang-Yee, I thought there would be a touch of Mervyn Peake in Gu’s writing. Chu Yuan makes the martial world a sort of urban-wonderland, thanks to the artifice of Shaw set design and studio shooting, in which ancient China seems like a giant urban sprawl beset by occult martial clans and mad schemes concocted by conniving mad geniuses hiding behind the scenes. Of course, there’s also the films of Li Chia, in which Gu’s martial world is one driven by interpersonal drama loosely hanging on the machinations of conniving mad geniuses, set in a quaint, bucolic Chinese countryside.
Both are actually valid interpretations, as Gu draws everything in short-hand. His setting is a barely defined ancient China, of which era I couldn’t rightly tell you. There are no sprawling descriptions of scenery or internal monologues. The narration takes place in short paragraphs of equally short declamatory sentences. A typical example:
"Shen was so outraged that her fingertips went cold. She couldn’t keep from lifting her head—
She had been too embarrassed to look at Xiao, but when she looked up, she naturally turned her eyes to his face.
She found his face ghostly pale, his eyes full of pain, and the corners of his eyes twitching uncontrollably.
Xiao was clearly enduring serious anguish.
He wasn’t a man who would reveal his pain easily."
If it seems like this is a “see spot run” style of writing, take my word that it belies a pretty sophisticated sense of pacing. The style makes for a very quick read, and the short-hand also works when characterizing minor characters, with which Gu demonstrates a real flair. I don’t know what it would look like in the context of the setting, but when Gu describes a character as “dressed like new money,” it gets the point across.
Less impressive are authorial intrusions which offer “insights” into human nature. “Dying is a painful thing for most people,” Gu informs us. Well yeah. Most examples are about on this order. Very often Gu uses the authorial position to extol the virtues of drinking, about which I think I’ve already rendered my opinion.
If I sound like I’m down on this novel, I assure you that it’s actually very entertaining. The best aspects are the good bits of characterization, the wacky prose style that works in spite of itself, and the bizarre plot points that tie themselves up in a round-about manner. And if there is something pitiable in the nature of the melodrama, it is equally heartfelt, and therefore compelling, so long as the reader can muster his or her sympathy. The Eleventh Son is an odd thing. It clearly fits into a generic category, but it is also a very personal and idiosyncratic. I have a feeling that “idiosyncratic” is the best available word for Gu Long, his style, and his work.
Sadly, this is still the only Gu Long novel available in English from a mainstream publisher (there is a self-published translation of Gu Long’s The Flower Guarding Bells, available from Lulu). I’d really like to read more of Gu’s work, as I don’t get the impression that all of it is so transparently masturbatory. Rebecca Tai’s translation is actually very good compared to the amateur work available on the internet, and I have heard from those who have read Gu Long in Chinese that she very well captures his style. I’d love to read the sequel to The Eleventh Son, as this volume ends abruptly, and right when the characters start to become interesting again.
Of all the wuxia that I have read (admittedly not a lot) this is easily the most personal and the most uniquely expressed vision of the martial world. And that curries a lot of favor, in spite of my misgivings. I devoured it in two sittings.