Book Review: ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

While ostensibly chronicling his family history, from the war-torn Vietnam his mother and schizophrenic grandmother witnessed, to the immigrant experience in the US, the author of this novel provides a breathtaking look at contemporary America, from morphine addiction to racial and class-based inequality and the politics of integration and queerness.

The novel is structured as a letter to the author’s mother, who cannot read in English, giving the author license to say things that he may never have been able to communicate with her in their common tongue, which the author describes as follows:

“The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level. […] a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”

All through the book, the author plays with language in a fascinating way, at times veering into poetry, at times examining language itself, facilitated perhaps by the distance provided by his mother’s unfamiliarity with the English language:

“How often do we name something after its briefest form? Rose bush, rain, butterfly, snapping turtle, firing squad, childhood, death, mother tongue, me, you.”

For me, as well as its emotional impact, many parts of the book have a powerful wit and humour to them which made me linger over certain passages.

The immigrant experience in the US (although one could also say more generally) is captured in passages such as the one that follows, about the nail salon in which his mother works:

“In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.”

The author later echoes his mother’s self-deprecation, while working on a tobacco plantation, when he meets his first lover for the first time:

“I would know only later that he was Buford’s grandson, working the farm to get away from his vodka-soaked old man. And because I am your son, I said “Sorry.” Because I am your son, my apology had become, by then, an extension of myself. It was my H

But the novel also touches on other issues in the US, like the impact of the marketing of oxycontin by the pharmaceutical industry to doctors leading to drug dependency among wide swathes of the US population and the overdose deaths of many of the author’s friends.

What I loved about the book was how real the author seemed in his thought patterns, in the realistic way memories flitted up during conversation and associations click in his mind, even if they weren’t verbalized by the character at that time. There is also an honesty to the portrayal of his sexual experiences which makes them rawer and more real. Think Peep Show‘s portrayal of sex without the comic aspect. I also liked how real his coming out conversation is with his mother, as the ball is taken completely out of his court as she confronts him with her own truths, which I think is part of a lot of people’s coming out experience.

One of the tidbits of cultural information about Vietnam was about the use of drag performers in funeral processions, which is similar but different to the gaudy performances at Taiwanese funerals:

“City coroners, underfunded, don’t always work around the clock. When someone dies in the middle of the night, they get trapped in a municipal limbo where the corpse remains inside its death. As a response, a grassroots movement was formed as a communal salve. Neighbors, having learned of a sudden death, would, in under an hour, pool money and hire a troupe of drag performers for what was called “delaying sadness” […] It’s through the drag performers’ explosive outfits and gestures, their overdrawn faces and voices, their tabooed trespass of gender, that this relief, through extravagant spectacle, is manifest. As much as they are useful, paid, and empowered as a vital service in a society where to be queer is still a sin, the drag queens are, for as long as the dead lie in the open, an othered performance. Their presumed, reliable fraudulence is what makes their presence, to the mourners, necessary. Because, grief, at its worst, is unreal. And it calls for a surreal response.”

Anyway, there’s so much more that I don’t really know how to describe, but a great read, would definitely recommend.

5/5

Book Review: ‘Taipei Dad, New York Mom’ by Mickey Chen 書評:陳俊志的《台北爸爸/紐約媽媽》

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Initially, I was quite excited by this book, as I’d previously watched a documentary by this late director (I reviewed it here). The book starts off with a moving account of the disintegration of the author’s family and the effect of his sister’s death on him and the larger family.

As the book develops, however, the same story is repeated ad nauseum and seemed almost like the author was trying to impose his own moral interpretation of his riches to rags story on the reader. The tone also seemed more appropriate to the essay format, rather than a long-form novel as he seemed to get a bit lost in his own narration after giving the broad strokes of the initial story. There are interesting aspects to the narrative. In the context of the gay marriage referendum, there has been a shift towards conservatism within the gay movement, and this has led to clashes within the movement, between those attempting to be inclusive to the extent of embracing what they call “chem sex culture” and BDSM fans and those in pursuit of (what their opponents would call) heteronormativity. The author seems pulled by these two conflicting strands of the gay community throughout, which may be what drives his switches between the first and third person at points throughout the book.

I’ve never really been a fan of autobiographies and towards the end of the book, it started to grate on my nerves a bit. The author teases the reader a little by suggesting he’s going to reveal the details of his life, but apart from brief references to a few of his relationships, a disjointed scene where we assume he’s having chem sex, the author’s main purpose throughout the novel seems to be to air the dirty laundry of the rest of his family members, while he maintains a Madonna-like status of victimhood throughout. There’s a lot of anger and resentment in the book, and this comes across in passive-aggressive comments and made the book come across as quite monotonous. Whereas in fictional works like Moonlight, there is a layer of separation between the author/director and the anger of the protagonist towards their family, the first person narrative here left us with nowhere to go, as the author doesn’t seem willing to reflect on the larger social context and systematic problems surrounding his family’s downfall in the same way that Moonlight tries to give the protagonist’s mother a human side.

We almost get to a scene comparable to the scene in Moonlight when the author faces his father’s mortality, but it doesn’t have the same impact for me as the film. Reading the book was almost like listening to someone you don’t know gossip about the people in their life, or someone showing you their family photo album. As a reader, I found it hard to care. Maybe due to the author’s familiarity with his family members, we’re never given a complete picture of them, just who they are as they relate to him, and, frequently, how they’ve victimized him. The central theme of the book is the tragedy that occurs in the author’s childhood. The tone flits between brief moments in which the author portrays something genuinely moving, snarky quips, boasting and wallowing in self-pity. While it’s nice that the author broke up the heaviness of the tragic portrayal of his sister’s death and his family’s disintegration, the other bits of the book felt a little posed, and there was a lot of name-dropping. Essentially they are there to show us what a famous, witty and high-performing luvvie the author is despite the loss of his sister and the break-up of his family home initiated by his father.

If I were to take a more cynical view on the change between the first and third person I mentioned above, it could be seen as an attempt to “be literary”. Combined with certain other comments throughout the book like “The small hole in the back of the intricate doll, now looking back, of course, was a massive symbol for leaving my carefree childhood”, just came across as pretentious attempts to sound educated. I felt this came across in a passage in which the author talks about drug-fueled sexual experiences at the Taiwan Youth Park, and he switches from the first to the third person, reflecting perhaps the disassociation that he feels from taking Ketamine:

一直到青年公園成為台灣gay beach才懂得一枚渾圓無瑕的屁眼是如此的人間至樂。沖澡間總有誘人的底迪無邪地以屁眼向你召喚,一起騎了車吃完建中黑糖剉冰就是如奶蜜甜糖的幹底迪床戲。IKEA夏日涼床上好多美麗的男孩永恆停留在他們高潮來前童稚的眉頭微蹙,屁眼戲劇性地陡地縮緊也忍不住要射了的迷離K世界,我想起古典的英國文學史課堂上那些草原芬芳的下午。男孩們滿足的輕喟很快在你身上趴著睡著,包裹著他們青春身體的甜淡香味,穿透裊裊迴繞的Rush餘韻,直撲鼻端讓我跌入底迪歳月曾經那麼無邪的往事如煙。

老去的男人後來綿延璀璨的性史再也沒法像古典時期那麼甜美可人了。隨手翻到一頁,聞了Rush嗑了E用了勾媚兒的性愛體驗,在鐵皮書裡用最複雜的符碼象徵交互指涉,都難以取代陰莖屁眼乳頭霎時的萬般感受。一沙一世界,蔓延展開成花花天地。 屁眼生出花朵,陽具是燦爛的樹。他感到自己的身體變成一本巨大的鐵皮書,鏤刻著感官的年輪和耳語的密碼。在我耳邊輕輕呢喃,身體就是記憶。

It wasn’t until the Taiwan Youth Park became Taiwan’s gay beach that he understood how much earthly pleasure could be derived from a perfectly round asshole. In the shower rooms there were always seductive twinks, beckoning you over brazenly with their assholes, then after riding a motorcycle together and eating shaved ice with brown sugar from the shop beside Jianguo High School, it was time for the even sweeter treat of fucking them. Lots of pretty boys will remain frozen with their brow slightly furrowed in the childish expression that comes just before an orgasm on an IKEA sun lounger, their assholes suddenly tightening dramatically as I can’t stop myself cumming in that blurry world of K, I thought of the fragrant scent of afternoons on the moors from my English Literature classes. The boys would sigh gently in satisfaction and then cuddle against you to sleep, as you hold their youthful bodies, with their faint sweet smell, with the lingering whiffs of the leftover Rush adding to the mix, and as the smell hits the nostrils you fall into the naivete just like that of youth, and the past goes up in smoke.

As men age, the ongoing resplendent sexual history is never as sweet and innocent as the classical era. Perusing to a certain page, sexual experience with the smell of rush, on E and Foxy Methoxy (5-MEO-Dipt), implying each other’s guilt with the most complex of symbols in an iron corrugated book, it’s hard to replace the myriad momentary sensations of the penis, the asshole and the nipple. The world on a grain of sand, spreading out and blossoming everywhere. A flower blossoms from the asshole, the penis is an awesome tree. He felt his entire body had turned into an iron-clad book, with the age rings of sensation and the codes of whispered nothings. Whispering in my ear, the body is memory itself.

I liked the fact that he inserted an apparently random thought into a sexual experience, as it made it ring truer, but everything the author does seems aimed at proving his extensive learning, which is why the random thought is about his English Literature classes.

In another of the brief interludes where we get a glimpse of the author himself and not just his family, he talks about his sexual relationship with one of his long-term partners:

晚上我們總是到純樸的民家洗澡,一鎖門,老羅和我熾熱摸索彼此。滑膩的肥皂泡沫穿過我們的股溝,我們挺直的陰莖。門外的部隊同儕不耐地敲門問詢,春光乍洩的梁朝偉啐了口水,猛烈進入張國榮,沒有KY,沒有保險套。這是我們最初芬芳的乙醚記憶,在意亂情迷的夏夜,穿透了層層記憶而來。

At night we always went to the rustic local showers. As soon as we locked the door Lao Luo and I would start passionately groping at each other. The soap suds flowed between our buttocks and around our erect cocks. Our army mates would knock impatiently on the door as Tony Leung from Happy Together spits as he enters Leslie Cheung, without any KY, without a condom. This was our diethyl ether-scented first memory, entranced with passion on a Summer evening, and it cuts through layer upon layer of memory to emerge again.

Some of the author’s comments on class are a bit over the top, particularly as he’s aware himself that he’s one generation away from a similar level of poverty. He’s constantly emphasizing how educated he is as a way to elevate himself:

那一年,我和老羅都剛退伍,我繼續在補習班教英文,努力存錢準備出國留學。他是油漆工人,下工後愛喝小酒,和朋友打電動玩具和柏青哥。我們沒有共同的朋友,我討厭他的狐群狗黨,他覺得我的朋友都是外星人。我們兩人一旦吵架,沒有緩衝地帶,沒有調停人,只有兩個人硬碰硬對幹。年輕的我們總是不明白,有些時候,再怎麼深刻的愛情是跨不了階級這一關的。

That year, when Lao Luo and I had just gotten out of the army, I continued to teach English at a cram school, working hard to earn money to study abroad. He worked painting houses, and when he got off work he liked to go for a tipple, and play arcade and pachinko games with his friends. We had no friends in common and I hated the pack of scoundrels he hung out with, whereas he thought all my friends were from another planet. As soon as we started to argue, there was no buffer zone, there was noone to mediate, there was just the two of us clashing hard and going after each other. Young as we were, we didn’t understand that sometimes, no matter how deep the love you feel, it can’t cross the class divide.

One interesting aspect of the narrative is how the mainlander/local Taiwanese division functioned beside class divisions. His father’s family is local Taiwanese, which plays a large part in his father’s rags to riches story. The author’s paternal aunt marries a 「不愛講話的外省老芋仔」 (a taciturn mainlander), who is 30 years older than she is. Another of his paternal aunts manages to escape from a 「wife-beater」only to marry a butcher who starts another family on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. When she goes to confront her husband’s wife in China about this, the fight that results makes the local paper in Guangzhou and the author jokingly refers to it as 「為國爭光」(winning glory for one’s country). The author’s father is said to have a consistently patriarchal attitude to everything that befalls his sisters, even though they are often providing him money to provide him investment for his hair-brained get-rich-quick schemes and bail him out of financial trouble.

Overall, it’s worth a read, although it might wear on your nerves a bit. The author, also a director, passed away recently.

 

 

 

 

《Less》書評:不如他人

62386248_441367870010315_144654923731042304_n我最近在看一本名為《Less》的同志小說。主角Less是一位年近五十的同志小說家,他在二十幾歳的時候曾經跟一位比他大二十歳的大師級詩人在一起,但他四十幾歳的時候則是跟一位比他小二十歳的青年交往。然而,正當Less要邁入生命的後半段時,那位現在已經三十幾歳的情人找到了跟他年紀相近的伙伴,所以與Less分手。

小說中提到Less那一代人和他這兩位情人分屬的兩代,三代之間在意識形態上的矛盾和對立。詩人的那一代同志甚至不認為自己是同志,也沒有什麼同志歸屬感。詩人本身是雙性戀,沒有公開出櫃,也沒有被文學圈歸類為一名「同志」詩人;比他年輕的那位青年Freddy屬於年輕一代,他們公開承認他們同志的身份,他也善於跟「同志」作家圈社交。

Less的小說在這些年輕世代的圈內作家眼裡,是對同志身份太悲觀的風格。Less本身也有點自卑:他知道他不是天才(不過他跟詩人交往的期間身邊都是天才);跟Freddy交往時,則被視為不夠gay,不如年輕一代以同志身份為傲,也不是對同志圈有責任感的同志作家。他的姓也暗示他不如別人(less than)的身份。

他為了婉拒Freddy的婚禮邀請函,決定去國外旅遊。在出發之前他與經紀人見面,才得知他最近寫完的小說剛被出版社退稿,因為跟以往一樣,主角又是一個自覺委屈的中產階級白人同志。有趣的是,故事中Less的小說其實跟這本小說Less有許多相似之處,比方說,主角都是年紀比較大、充滿疑惑的白人同志,他們懷念過去的身世。不過,在現代社會,一個白種同志一般來說並不是很大的問題,多得是更受壓迫的社群。然而,在他出發之前,他沒辦法看到自己世界之外的一切,只是一再重複一樣的故事。

讓我比較產生共鳴的部分,是他在講那些經歷過第一代愛滋病危機的同志,他們活到晚年的感受。在缺乏模範的情況下,那一代的同志不是很清楚要有尊嚴地活到老。更進一步來說,對同志而言,什麼是「有意義」的存在?身為同志,是要效仿異性戀社會的典範,結婚、生下(或領養)小孩嗎?這些問題也牽涉到我上述的「矛盾和對立」。早期的同志運動其實意圖為顛覆以異性戀為正統的關係典範。最近台灣才剛通過婚姻平權法案,但反對這個法案的萌萌竟然無意識地呼應早期的同志運動,也就是性解放的觀點:同性戀者不應該(或不適合)受「正統」異性戀關係的壓迫影響;萌萌口中的「不反同,反同婚」也是套用這個道理。在婚姻平權法案之前,台灣曾有「多元成家」法案,更符合性解放運動的觀點,不過沒有通過。在某方面來說,現有法案比較傳統,同性戀關係也受限於傳統典範;不過,這同時也是一個比較踏實的觀點,同性戀者不因為性取向並而比異性戀者更有智慧,也是繼續複製異性戀社會中的階級與種族不平等。

總之,還沒看完,不過我還是很推薦這本小說。

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee: Review

go-set-watchman-book-covers(Contains spoilers) Go Set a Watchman is really a story that completes To Kill a Mockingbird and seems more relevant to the contemporary debate over race relations. The title is a quote from The Prophecy Against Babylon in Isaiah 21:

1 The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.

2 A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.

3 Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.

4 My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.

5 Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

7 And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

8 And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

9 And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

10 O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.

11 The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?

12 The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

13 The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.

14 The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.

15 For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.

16 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:

17 And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the Lord God of Israel hath spoken it.

Babylon was a grand historic city that had sacked Jerusalem and taken the survivors back to the city where they mistreated them as suggested in Psalms 137. It was thought that the destruction of Babylon was impossible given its size and grandeur. Its eventual destruction signifies liberation and vengeance for the wrongs down against God’s chosen people. In the context of the book, Babylon is presented as the American South and the enslaved citizens of Jerusalem forced into exile, the former black slaves. Jean-Louise’s childhood and her respect for Atticus was to some extent built upon this Babylon too.

The book is set many years after To Kill a Mockingbird, when Jean-Louise returns to Maycomb from New York where she has been living. Other central characters from the first novel are no longer on the scene; Jem has dropped dead and Dale is living overseas. Atticus has taken another of Jean-Louise’s childhood friends, Henry (Hank), under his wing to work as a lawyer. Hank has become somewhat of a love interest for Jean-Louise although she refuses to marry him as this would mean she would have to return to live in the Maycomb that she escaped. She also visits Calpurnia, the housekeeper who essentially raised her and Jem together with Atticus, but she discovers a rift has arisen between her and Calpurnia, who treats her with a polite distance. The central event of the novel is when Jean-Louise spies on Atticus and Hank attending a citizen’s council meeting at which a speaker makes dehumanizing comments about black people. A few incidents have foreshadowed this, with references to the NAACP interfering in what Atticus suggests is a just system. This suggests a different motive lay behind Atticus’s defense of Tom in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s only after witnessing the citizens’ council meeting that Jean-Louise comes to the realization that they are on different sides of an argument. Although Jean-Louise is opposed to Federal interference in state issues, she thinks that in this case it was the better option. That the Atticus from her childhood who had always been so respectful to black people and who had defended Tom in his trial could take part in a meeting such as this disgusts her. After confronting Hank and Atticus separately about the meeting, she learns that Atticus has beliefs which are diametrically opposed to her own. This shatters her illusions of Atticus as her moral compass and she feels the urge to flee from Maycomb and never contact anyone there again.

Her uncle had tried to prepare her for this shock to her system that he knew was coming and it is her uncle that eventually tries to persuade her to stay in Maycomb and to treat Atticus with respect, even though she might disagree with his views. His suggestion is that her outrage and her decision to flee Maycomb won’t do anything for the community or for the black people she wishes to help. He suggests rather that being a friend to someone you vehemently disagree with is the most productive path forward for the South.

Despite having been written before her first novel, this one seems completely in tune with the contemporary debate around race relations. Atticus, who was hoisted high as an example of a good man in the racist south, turns out to be the propagator of a more insipid kind of racism against black people, in that his inability to see them as his equals is hidden from plain sight by his politeness. Atticus sees them only as a force that will destroy the South, while Jean-Louise is able to see humanity in them.

We can see almost direct parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP in the novel and between the attachment of Atticus and Hank to romanticized notions of Southern society and those who want to “Make America Great Again”.

Jean-Louise’s uncle’s speech could be compared to recent remarks on “patience with others” by George Bush on divisiveness in politics:

 

 

Attempts to Author the Sunflower Student Movement

Was waiting for a friend at a bookshop and was flicking through a few titles when I saw these volumes about the Sunflower Student Movement. The first one I picked up was this:

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The cover looked OK, but my heart sank a little when I saw that the dedication was to Benedict Anderson… and sank even more when the opening sentence featured Marx…

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How very politics student circa 1989. I guess that’s why they called it a student movement. The chapters are each written by different people, but it seems quite dense in style and heavy with academic aspirations as opposed to aiming for readability. That said my friend arrived before I was able to get any kind of measure of it.

There were another two as well, and they seemed a little more aimed at the general reader:

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Anyone had a read of them or would recommend?

I also read a chapter of Luo Yu-chia’s (羅毓嘉) new book You’re my stove light in dark days (天黑的日子你是爐火). It was a little bit too much navel gazing for my taste, discussing his romance with a Hong Kong man. As Luo is a gay rights advocate the Hong Kong man’s unwillingness to adopt a gay identity is challenging for him. The chapter I read showed him attempting to justify the lack of recognition with humour and by insisting that non verbal markers like wanting Luo to be well fed shows affection where words do not. The romance wasn’t very engaging for me, and I didn’t find the Hong Kong guy very likeable as Luo sees him.

Book Review: ‘Poet Robot’ by E.I. Wong

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Some time ago I stumbled across a blog on WordPress called “A Narcissist Writes Letters To Himself” that made me laugh. The style of the blog reminded me of a mix of the absurd humor of Flann O’Brien and the comic logical fallacies of Douglas Adams, and this was reflected in his self-published book, Poet Robot: An Introduction to E.I. Wong. I preferred the off-the-wall absurdity to some of the other stuff, but it was an enjoyable read overall and had me laughing out loud at parts.

The highlights of the book for me included ‘To Describe Blowjobs Artistically’, wherein the author takes up the challenge of one of the literary critics in SlaughterHouse 5 who states that the purpose of the modern novel is ‘to describe blow-jobs artistically’. I enjoyed the tone of this section of the book, essentially charting the thought process of a man receiving a blow job. Much as it may be packaged as pastiche, there was a real depth to his examination of the male psyche and how it hovers between the horrifyingly banal and the comfortably lewd when inhibitions are wavering:

As Oscar’s mind leaves for an indescribably present yet distant sense of time, the beast within this soulless man will occupy her with pulsating gyration of up, down and up, and she will sync up with him, her fishy lipstick going, up and down.

The other highlights were a bit punchier. Some of the shorter pieces hit the mark and made me laugh, while a few just didn’t land. I liked the internal monologue that ran through the book, from the copyright information, through the footnotes and in the letters to the governor about the author’s bid to be Poet Laureate of California. When it came to the other longer piece in the book, ‘The Second Person’ I found that it was the more outlandish lines that really made me laugh. I laughed at the repeated reference to police officers having an irrational hatred for foster children, for example, and the moose pee. I didn’t quite get the attempts at race humor, but that could be that I’m not American. Wasn’t sure about the “it’s funny because he’s a dwarf” angle of the story either, and the male presence in the book could have done with a little more female input than references to my girlfriend (read: the shrew) which came up now and again.

Looking forward to seeing what he gets up to in the future.

 

What I’m Reading Dec 2015-Jan 2016 我最近在看什麼書?

Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.

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I bought a book called 《斷代》 by  Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man (《荒人手記》):

我站在那裡,我彷彿看到,人類史上必定出現過許多色情國度罷。它們像奇花異卉,開過就沒了,後世只能從湮滅的荒文裡依稀得知它們存在過。因為它們無法擴大,衍生,在愈趨細緻,優柔,色授魂予的哀愁凝結裡,絕種了。

《荒人手記》,朱天文,時報文化,二版,臺北市,65頁

Translated by the talented Howard Goldblatt Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Sewn Together’ by Lai-chu Hon 韓麗珠的《縫身》書評

12315282_10102256948261369_1284331862_oThis novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.

Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor Continue reading

Review of ‘Revisiting the White Bridge’ by Roan Ching-yue 書評:阮慶岳的《重見白橋》

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*Contains spoilers*

Roan Ching-yue is an architecture professor in Taiwan and has written several stories featuring gay themes, including ‘The Pretty Boy from Hanoi‘ and ‘The Con Man‘ (click through for my translation), both featured in the short story collection City of Tears (《哭泣哭泣城》), this was his first long-form novel and it was published in 2002.

We meet the protagonist of this novel at a time of crisis. An only child, he meets a man resembling his dad who claims to be his brother by the same mother and father. Despite the questions that surround the man’s sudden appearance in his life, he accepts him as a brother pending further inquiry. It’s at this time that he finds out that his company is moving the majority of its employees to China, so he quits and fails to find another job, so has a larger amount of free time. Over this period he discovers that his “brother” is gay and then we are introduced to the brother’s perspective, with a chronicle of his childhood growing up in Australia and his wild sex life.

The glimpses we get of the brother’s life, show him to be a lot more carefree than the protagonist, however, one of the main stories he recounts involved an attempt to shame him:

[My translation] I was once at a motel in Los Angeles and, bored, so I decided to pleasure myself. I stuffed the cap of a bottle of shaving cream into my ass. As I was unable to get it out again, I had to go three days without moving my bowels. I gradually lost my appetite and my face turned a shade of reddish purple. The doctor at the emergency room knew, of course, what I’d done, but he insisted on forcing me to recount all the gory details of what I’d gotten up to that night in the motel room in front of a group of strangers comprised of interns and nurses. He made me lie squatting on the bed like a dog, while he and his female assistant tried in vain to take it out, threatening that if I didn’t cooperate as best I could, he would have to cut my anus open with a knife. I calmly asked him: How long would the wound take to heal if you cut it open? He said: Maybe a lifetime, maybe you’d never be able to use it again for anything but shitting.

I accepted him shaming me through the entire process and at the moment when he finally retrieved the plastic cap, I sprayed the shit I had accumulated over several days out of my elevated ass all over him and his assistant just as the cap slid out.

This was shame’s parasitic twin, revenge.  [pg. 138]

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A Dictionary of Maqiao 《馬橋詞典》書評

A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. 10867069_10101763657599809_38699079_nI liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:

Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]

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