When you’re reading a book you like in a genre you don’t know well, you never really know whether something is good or inventive considered within its generic context. You only have access to your personal naive reading, which is valid, but simultaneously incomplete. Every Day the Protagonist Wants to Capture Me (a novel that asks nothing whatever of me) is a lot like Scum Villain. It functions as a screaming recommendation for that slightly-earlier book, which hits many (so many) of the same beats but is better-built on every level.
Every Day‘s System is an inconsistent narrative presence. The humour is, comparatively, poor. It’s not very engaged with genre parody or criticism; the book largely reiterates a scrambled version of the OG plot, minus the harem. Its treatment of xianxia is very face-value, and goes a bit like this:
Every Day: ah, an action scene. But first, a run down of the specific core-stage of everyone involved in this fight—wait, where are you going, don’t you love nascent souls?!
Which sounds like:
Some Guy: *leaning into mic* Hi, we’re Late Stage and the Nascent Souls, welcome to the children’s play area of the Pella, Nebraska Burger King—
The book is fat with good cultivation technology. It’s probably lifted from other books (it certainly feels like it is), but should thus in turn be portable for fic, et al? This, in a way I’ve not seen discussed before, made me consider that MDZS’s reception also hugely benefits from the book’s being most of its Western audience’s first and often only exposure to xianxia. Naive readers take genre tropes at face value, absolutely investing in staples like talismans and demonic cultivation as fresh and meaningful inventions and questions. The lack of (over)familiarity with xianxia changes the naive reader’s relation to a singular example’s stakes. They don’t feel the story’s problems can all easily be resolved with the familiar infrastructure borrowed from other pieces within the same genre. A sense of over-riding generic logic does not render individual plots contingent and tenuous. This isn’t to suggest that the naive readers don’t hugely miss out on the intellectual and phenomenological pleasures of intertextuality, but rather to suggest that there are some discrete benefits to the misconceptions and context-deficits colouring Western impressions of MDZS (which lead to a misleading experience of CQL as having almost ‘invented’ its genre).
In terms of genre, Chu Yu, the transmigrator protagonist of Every Day, occupies an abusive shixiong of the golden child protagonist whose actions mark him for death. In the absence of the original Chu Yu, a new, replacement pointless canon fodder shixiong-shaped villain (Song Jingyi) hoves into view. There’s no deconstruction of the mechanics of this. Nothing about the actual personality of the original Chu Yu, who our transmigrator replaces, is that relevant. Nominally the plot needs someone with this character’s connection to the Chu family, but you could edit that thread clean out inside a quarter of an hour.
To be honest, the New Chu Yu’s personality isn’t particularly important either. I’d find it hard even to describe him as a person without simply winding up describing his situation as we see it. I know little about both he and the original main character/current love-interest, Xie Xi, As People, in terms of their backgrounds, in-narrative personalities or psychological hangups. Poor Chu Yu bumps his head on the ceramic pillow so many times that the brainmeats within can no longer be right, and the chiefest thing I learned about his original life in modern China is that the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is huge over there, and taking the piss out of it equally so. We get, in the penultimate chapter, an insight into Xie Xi’s abandonment issues, but honestly that could have come very early and then inflected the whole text rather than being reserved, as though character development is some kind of Easter Egg.
I’m not here to do a big dump on Every Day, the melon seed hulls and/or popcorn husks of which are still stuck between my teeth. You learn neat little details, just via further immersion. ‘You even went “ah.” Is this the start of a lyric poetry session?’ I guess that’s a thing! EDTPWTCM is not even bad, exactly. I flipped pages. But rather than serving as methadone, Every Day ended up being quite ‘look at your man, now back to me’ reading experience. Granted, I’d have been sad if SVSSS didn’t show up well against its background, and might even have felt silly for so esteeming it (though really reception is always a moving target, and I don’t intellectually think I ought to have felt ‘duped’ even if the contrast had turned out to be unfavourable). They tell you to watch novilladas (sloppy apprentice bullfights) to grasp good matador technique, and boy has this meh danmei made me think about how similar and more successful texts generate their impacts.
For one thing, I’m left mulling over the role of big publicly staged emotional crowd scenes and social surveillance in the danmei. Add that to the way MXTX uses a Greek chorus/Peter Shaffer whisper effect/theatricality, and you have a mediocre paper called, like, ‘Watchtowers and Panopticons: Foucault, Jin Guangyao, Performance and State Control’. Essentially, at one point in Every Day the entire cultivation world descends on the transmigrated protagonist Chu Yu’s house like ‘we heard you had this random former big bad interred in your basement, hoss?’ This is mostly due to rumours of impropriety surrounding the Chu family’s succession, grudges against that powerful clan, and rubber-necks wanting to watch some action, even as the novel commenters do. (A lot more could have been done to play with these layers of aucience, here.)
Let me stress that this plot development, like most of the novel’s thinly-substantiated and thematically-vacuous turns, comes absolutely out of nowhere. This whole big bad feels as though he was invented ten minutes before the time of posting, exclusively for this scene and for another fucking thing to occur. This development will hopefully distract you from the three previous dropped plot threads that the writer’s gotten bored with.
That’s how this book works. Things happen, and (startlingly few) people have names, but for the most part I wouldn’t call these a plot or characters. At the novel’s big Crisis (significantly before the actual ending), the writer tried to do a sweeping thing with the scattered bits of earlier elements and a big Sacrifice. It is pretty good that killing off the Chus was actually what fucked the original novel’s plot over. I kind of respect it? There Was An Attempt (and I want to know more about Abysses in xianxia now). The writer seems to improve over the course of the novel. But the fact remains that you can’t make dinner with some piddling carrot sticks, even if you’ve saved up five of them. And why is she plating up the Five Carrot Sticks of Narrative Engagement and Satisfaction here at the bitter end? I’m pleased she has some, but why weren’t they doled out throughout the novel? I was hungry?
With the romantic or the plot conflicts largely wrapped up (such as they are: the less said about why they were at war with the demonic cultivators, the better), the novel’s actual ending leaves one with a feeling of, ‘oh.’ The writer improves at setting up romantic scenarios, but never at character or the interplay thereof: who are these people, why are they in love? The extras allow us to ride along with the original Chu Yu for some important prequel plot moments, and to enter into his feelings. This simple frame and the access it affords us to OG Chu Yu’s investment in this world rapidly renders him more interesting than the main cast. This novel is worse for being transmigration; the extras, with PoVs from characters for whom this is the only universe, work better than the core text. Only in these extras does the writer approach the level of characterisation we should have had from the beginning. This is by no means endemic to transmigration as a genre, though it’s always a risk thereof: it’s about the narrative’s lack of embodied investment in New Chu Yu’s perspective. Throughout this book, why didn’t we have any sense of the shape of the novel as Fishstick knew it and the standing issues this raised for his efforts to survive in his new role?
At one point we didn’t know why Chu Yu’s xianxia father was behaving oddly. We only knew that in some complex way, it involved his Evil Twin (I know). I started to think that it could really enliven the plot if whatever was happening with the twins was actually the Chu family’s own fault: if, via cultivation technology, they’d somehow split their son into two people (a good heir and a disposable wastrel) and it had not worked out. Then perhaps Chu Yu’s embodied memories, which he seemed to carry due to the body he transmigrated into, could actually the result of a similar split and subsequent banishment to ‘another world’. All Chu Yu’s glib knowledge from being a transmigrator would thus actually be incorrect, and his easy detachment shaken, because unbeknownst to him, he would actually have been This Chu Yu all alone, or at least a form or version of him. His ‘transmigration’ would thus have been the same traumatic ‘rejoining’ process it seemed his dad was enduring in these chapters. That, of course, wasn’t where the plot was going, and I knew it even then. I was just hungry for some development to spike the complacency of this engagement with genre, and/or to force all the character relationships into something more brittle, something capable of carrying more investment.
The book’s psychological realism is wonky throughout. Nothing about the original Chu Yu’s mother’s death is given due breathing room, and it’s an instance wherein the sheer idiocy of the yandere gong drove me a bit nuts. There they were, in a life or death situation. The woman Xie Xi believed to be his lover’s mother had just died. And nevertheless, Xie Xi was whinging about why they weren’t seizing that moment to fuck. Hold it together, kid, sheesh! Though I could almost understand his frustration, given that a book this long and romance-centric chooses to repeatedly fade to black. Really?
This evident self-censorship (which must be encouraged by generic expectations or production conditions) just leads to weirder presentations of sublimated sexuality. Two chapters were given over entirely to the author or the audience’s (presumed) Thumbelina kink. Third Shidi is impressed that his boyfriend, who he hates and who’s just made him mouse-sized, brought him a luxurious box. Bro, he kidnapped you and made you mouse-sized? The well-constructedness of the prison box is not the fucking issue, here? It was especially wild because the book finally had to grudgingly assign a real name to Third Shidi, who for 1,400 pages was just ‘dude three’. There was a real air of ‘sigh, I guess we can’t wrap this up without fucking naming this one too, euuuugh.’
The three martial brothers’ Elder Gay shizun, Lu Qingan, was a good addition. I do like that he evidently just plucked the gays out of the disciple masses. ‘Guess I have to train these ones up and make real queers out of this sad raw material.’ Quite early on, we heard rumours that some of the demonic cultivators were hella gay. Admittedly, I did not expect these rumours to come back in the form of ‘and one of them was our Master’s ex boyfriend’. Is the book doing a Tesco’s Own brand Wangxian with Lu Qingan and his special friend, or are they just roughly similar Types? The timing isn’t wrong for it to be the former, especially if the whole novel is slightly ‘I heard SVSSS sold decently’, but I can’t really make an educated guess, here. I wish I knew more about what might be attributable to shared influences from previous and extant tropes versus what could be down to successful texts hitting the market and shaping trends. I don’t want to over-attribute causality, but neither do I think that, for example, YA wasn’t shaped by Hunger Games’ reception in the years directly following its publication.
YA is an interesting frame to consider xianxia via, given the Bildungsroman elements of many of these texts. To what extent does xianxia cross over with school stories, not just in terms of settings, but in terms of the texts’ energy and concerns? Yet xianxia also has a lot of room to centre older protagonists and their problems (which are, admittedly, of greater interest to me). In a strange Venn diagram intersection of these approaches, every xianxia training years montage is weirdly reminiscent of a a bad graduate school experience (so just ‘grad school’, then). A promising student gets Accepted by somebody prestigious, which just means they’re stuck on top of a mountain while this illusive, unreadable master zooms off god knows where. The student is left to meditate with only a shitty manual to guide them, or to fall off a cliff or qi-deviate from stress. Appealing to upper management is largely impossible or useless. Some harried older abuse victims/Senior Disciples/adjuncts are vaguely around. They might beat you up for no reason, but they’re probably just Tired and leave you to perish each alone. I hypothesise that grad students are into xianxia because we’ve all seen the Time Knife. ‘Ah yes, the Conference, where you go to be stabbed by a peer from the posher institution due to embedded classism. Of course, carry on.’
“Wait, if they can’t all become Peak Lords, what’s everybody’s job after this? Where does money come from in this universe?”
One of the problems of the novel’s conclusion is that Chu Yu’s older brother’s position as Clan Hair has made him feel he can’t go be gay like his baby brother, because people will say he sucks and stuff. But they have cadet branch cousins who can inherit, and the last time people came to their house to say Chu Sheng sucked and stuff, they accidentally awoke Satan, so why care about their takes? Surely, surely when you get used as a patsy in a Rez Satan plot, tons of people die because of your Oopsie, and the very family you were bitching about has to fix the problem you just created themselves: s u r e l y your shitposting rights have fallen in battle and no1cur, forever.
Then, finally, it occurs to someone that their parents and grandparents will live for centuries and centuries. Thus they can possibly solve the gay no heirs issue via additional babymaking higher up the supply chain. Why do all these cultivator couples go, ‘woah there buddy, two kids is enough for me!’ Even if cultivational birth control methods are off the chain, these people are stupid rich. Why do they not try having, I don’t know, four kids? They can absolutely support them! It’s been 1000 years and evidently these people only had birthday sex wherein they got a little crazy and forgot about their traditional Chinese medicine birth control on two of them? Really? Really, though. Also, the kids are always five years apart or something. There’s never a case wherein someone cannot stand the little sister their parents had 260 years after them, with her fucking Han dynasty memes. She keeps trying to send her elders information on paper; what, is she too good for turtle shells now? Yesterday they caught her cultivating with hot weaponry, can she get disowned for that? Asking for a me (signed, jiejie).
Near the end of the book, there’s an English translation of a Chinese translation of a Japanese phrase that I’d render in English as ‘doth protest too much’. If the last round of translators know that English idiom, they’ve chose to avoid it because Shakespeare is too culturally located. But honestly, in such a case, maybe skip to the localisation? If you’re going to get into the origin and texture of the OG loan phrase, ok, sure. But if you’re rendering the English in awkward mush just to avoid Shakespeare, you’re not getting a good enough deal in trade.
I found these end notes consistently interesting. One for chapter 27 suggests that the same character can be translated as either ‘demonic’ or ‘charming’. (Someone on twitter suggested it was https://t.co/mRXFZfe6l4?amp=1 ‘a beautiful, enchanting ghost or demon’.) Oddly sometimes translators will mention that they use Grammarly, which I think of as almost a kind of scam because of how crap it is at language processing if compared to any half decent editor. I guess if you’re not comfortable with the target language, you might find it useful. Perhaps these translators are pointing out that they don’t have an editor either to manage expectations or to solicit one. Strange, that beta systems and connections haven’t cohered to correct such lacuna? Perhaps it happens because of the quasi fannish, quasi paid work nature of the set-up. If you’re editing for someone who has a tip jar out, and doing so for free, does that make you a patsy? Could you get a collaborative arrangement going? How does BC novels work, in re this? And what all happened to cause someone to translate into a language they’re not comfortable with? I guess I don’t want anyone’s life story or even a deep dive into the social dynamics that have resulted in fan translation variability, because I don’t want to get too distracted by this mechanics question. There’s a lot to think about just in terms of texts, and that’s my primary focus at present; there’s not much percentage in starting to worry about this part of sausage making.
Ultimately I read well-nigh 1,500 pages of this book, a full Gormenghast unit, only to give it two stars. It was valuable, but also the sheer extent to which I played myself here is incredible. However: piece on the Victorian serial novel and Asian web novel publishing when? One thing I’ve been thinking about in terms of serialisation is that I don’t necessarily get the sense that particular single chapters, or even books (in, for example, Langya List with its five or so), are supposed to function as discrete artistic units. So am I supposed to be engaging with the web novel as a traditional novel, as something more like a television show (where the narrative units are episodes and/or seasons), or via the experiential flow of the weekly chapters (also rather like television, but considered differently)? Where is my gaze supposed to rest?
My favourite translator’s note sparked some SVSSS jokes:
‘The poet Pan Yue 潘岳 was said to be so handsome that whenever he went out, the number of admirers surrounding him was so large that many people were unable to approach him. Therefore, they would throw fruits into his carriage as a token of their admiration and when he got back home his carriage would be full of fruit. What I’m saying is that some people in ancient people in China would go completely bonkers whenever they saw someone extraordinarily good-looking.’
Mari: Imagine you’re so hot that someone just chucks an apple at your head, and that’s how you die.
Me: We have failed to ask the right questions as to how food killed Shen Yuan. …oh no, what if he’s been obliviously leading on guy number 159, and then pulls an ‘As A Straight Man’? In bewildered fury, the self-actualised gay throws a rotting apple at his head and it kills him. The self-actualised gay is horror-struck.
Priest at the funeral: It’s not your fault—we all wanted to do that, sometimes. I myself grew up with Yuan ge, and once on a school trip I pelted him with seashells for a quarter of an hour for attempting to claim he was ‘a boobs man, probably?’ after holding my hand for the whole day—*cough* but that was before I took orders. I was a different man, then. Anyway!
Mari: Luo Binghe is the first man who served Shen Yuan food instead of angrily throwing it at his face in frustration
Me: The sheer number of people who honestly believed they were dating Shen Yuan—
Mari: You can’t even call him a fuckboy with a straight face and yet his technique! is perfect!
Me: The No Fuck Boy. The rotten apple was only in this guy’s hand because they were out apple picking. Surely that’s a date? Come on—