“When grief for fiction’s idle words
More real than human life appears,
Reflect that life itself’s a dream
And do not mock the reader’s tears.”
One of the difficulties of reading the same book for 6 weeks is how it leaves you once it’s finished, where you go from there. I imagine it’s why people continue watching soap operas, because the characters seep into your daily life. They become real. In my life the characters of The Story of the Stone have become real and now my journey with them has finished, I miss them. And perhaps that’s the point; all along the book trips in these little reminders: fiction and truth overlap; if we think the story is a dream then we must remember that life, too, is a dream. A story we tell ourselves.
The last 2 volumes of The Story of the Stone took a turn for the dramatic. I think I mentioned that in volume 3 there were pre-figurings of a downturn in fortunes to come; in volumes 4 and 5 those downturns happen at speed. All is not well with the Jias. Their lives lived large come crashing down as one thing after another goes wrong. Meanwhile our hero – Bao-yu – and his sickly cousin Dai-yu grow ever closer while his family have very different ideas about his future bride, his more level-headed cousin Bao-chai. Needless to say this doesn’t turn out well for any of them, a message, perhaps, that interfering in heavenly matters is not for the unenlightened. Bao-yu loses his stone. Uncle She is charged with misdemeanors and loses his title. Even the upright Jia Zheng (Bao-yu’s father) is brought down by scandal. Deaths deplete the Jia numbers. Even the best are lost.
Meanwhile, Bao-yu is beginning to realise that enlightenment is his path. He has always been attracted to the tellings of the Taoists and Buddhists – Chuang Tzu, Lieh-tzu – a habit which has been a significant source of dismay on the part of his father and the people around him who expect a more practical life – passing exams, doing the family credit, having children and so on. I found the juxtaposition fascinating – the way in which the people around him try to deter him from meeting his spiritual needs and focusing on the practical elements of life. Can they prevent him from achieving his destiny? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Despite my uncertainties during volume 2 and 3, overall I found The Story of the Stone a wonderful read. When I finished reading I felt like I ought to go back and start again, picking out the warning signs about how the Jia’s fortunes would ride out, enjoying those moments of poetry. And I felt a little bereft. I missed Bao-yu, Aroma, Dai-yu, Bao-chai, Xi-feng who comes to a sad end (though she probably deserved it). At the beginning of volume 1 Bao-yu has a dream in which he reads the fortunes of the ladies of the Jia family and I found myself turning back to it as those lives unfolded, beginning to understand how their destinies were predicted. It made me realise that there was much hidden between all those parties, those delicacies eaten and games of ‘guess fingers’ played. There was a depth I had missed, distracted by the dream of life.
So where do I go from here? I finished reading The Story of the Stone about a week ago and I’ve flopped between one book and the next feeling dissatisfied and unsure. What is all this reading for? I can’t say I know. And that passage above springs to mind – am I dreaming my life away caught in a fiction? Perhaps that’s the key message of The Story of the Stone, woven in gilt and embroidered luxury, that however adeptly we disguise it our lives are stories we tell ourselves and the lives of others are too. Maybe that’s the only way we think we can live, but then Bao-yu shows us otherwise. Accepting our fate and living with the ‘flow’ (or the Tao) of life may be the surest way of buffeting ourselves from the trials and the joys on which we might otherwise depend. A deep book after all, yet and entertaining one.