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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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]

Continue reading

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]

Continue reading

Book Review: The Dream Devourer by Egoyan Zheng 伊格言《噬夢人》書評

egoyan's bookI was first asked to translate an excerpt from this book by author Egoyan Zheng for eRenlai, and it was only later that I realized that it was in fact an excerpt from a full-length novel – somewhat of a rarity in Chinese language fiction. A lot of Taiwanese fiction focuses on the contrast between modernity and tradition or queer themes, which meant this intercontinental science fiction spy romp set in the future, with a serious psychological edge to it, came as a bit of a bolt from the blue for me. The book still touches on the identity issues of the “Taiwanese condition,” but in a way that can be applied to global issues.

The book is set against the background of an eerie new world order (for the Taiwanese reader this may be a not-so-subtle imaginary of expanded Chinese power, although for Western readers it finds more resonance in the NSA prism spying scandal.) The book employs the science fiction trope of an enslaved and persecuted sub-race of “biosynthetics”. This has been seen a lot in science fiction movies, but instead of a robot race, or artificial intelligence, the subjects are clones educated and emotionally stunted through the use of dreams. The author’s brief stint as a student of psychology at National Taiwan University, before he dropped out and read Chinese Literature at Tamkang University stands out here, as Lacan and Freud remain popular among university professors in Taiwan and psychoanalytic theory features heavily in their literary graduate courses. The race of biosynthetics are emotionally stunted as a result of a complicated dream process with which they are educated to obey mankind.

What stands out about this book is the world built for the audience in the various footnotes – some of which extend for several pages – in a more lively fashion than Tolkien, Zheng explores everything from performance artists who genetically engineer a real life Hello Kitty, with no mouth that has to be fed through a nose tube, to a race of blind dwarfs that has seemingly been isolated from mankind for thousands of years, but suspiciously speaks a tongue remarkably similar to English, and the future of the porn industry, with porn stars becoming obsolete with heightened virtual reality. All of them relate to the story-line, however, and are not just random interruptions to the main text, and provide vital clues in the protagonist’s struggle for the “truth”.

The protagonist, K, is a double – some would say triple – agent. The world through K’s eyes is emotionally stunted, as the life of a biosynthetic should be, as dictated by the dreams that raised them. He struggles with pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations and personality disorders however, and embarks on a major turning point in his life, when he is confronted with the mysterious Godel, and when he realizes that he is going to be discovered as a biosynthetic posing as a human, thanks to a surprise check on his agency, and a test that he is unable to cheat successfully.

K has aspects of a film noir hero, which in combination with his “shallow” emotional range, gives him an almost autistic character which leaves him disconnected from everyone. We see him struggle to rediscover the secret that lies behind his schizophrenic episodes with a hope that some depth lies behind his robotic facade. Alongside the protagonist, we begin to question his drive to become human, and cheer him on as he begins to work with the Biosynthetic Liberation Front, in their struggle against human hegemony.

Love also plays a role in the book, a key building block in K’s construction of a “normal human life”, something he has desired since he found himself abandoned in a derelict building, and later a major factor in his questioning of this drive within himself. The book’s puzzling denouement will leaves you with two conflicting opinions of what exactly has been going on and will have you thinking about it for days.

To elaborate on what I described as the Taiwanese issues brought up in the book, they include nuclear power issues, animal rights issues, identity issues and intelligence concerns.

The book includes a scene where K hallucinates that he sees a child being consumed by the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima in 1945 – a theme which he develops in his new book, Ground Zero, set in the wake of a modern nuclear holocaust. The issue of nuclear power, and specifically the opening of a fourth nuclear power plant on Taiwan, which has been pushed for by  the ruling KMT, has been a hot button topic in Taiwan, with large-scale protests occurring in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, including the participation of prominent scholars and activists. The stop-start progress of the fourth nuclear plant is summarized here, although the referendum has still failed to materialize. An alternative look at the nuclear issue can be seen at eRenlai, in their No Nuke No Future focus.

Another issue which features prominently in the book is animal rights. This pertains not only to cruelty to animals, but also to genetic manipulation and the murky line between animals and humans. Animal rights are an important issue for many Taiwanese people, as Huang Zong-hui states in an interview she did with me for eRenlai:

The anti-China tendency of the recent protests against the KMT’s attempt to force a cross-strait trade-in-services pact through the legislature is representative of a general fear of the Communist Party leadership of China, which takes shape in the novel as a new world order government, shrouded in mystery. Outside of the cross-strait context, the espionage resonates with the revelations of Edward Snowden about the US’s NSA spying program.

Overall, this book is a thrilling read, and running through it is a conspiracy that will keep you turning pages, and thumbing through footnotes.