My first book of 2020 is Notes of a Desolate Man by Chu T’tien-Wen, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin. In 2019, I made a more-or-less conscious decision to read more works by Asian and Asian-American writers, and I’m continuing that this year. In my search for gay Asian literature, specifically, I discovered a number of seemingly compelling texts, translated to English, from writers of Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other nationalities. Notes of a Desolate Man is Taiwanese, which I thought an appropriate place to begin this year because Taiwan recently became the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
The novel was originally written in Chinese and published in 1994. It was translated to English five years later, then published by Oxford University Press in 2000. Its description notes that the novel won “the coveted China Times Novel Prize,” which is striking to me considering what (little) I know about attitudes still surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in China and its territories, which would have been even more conservative and regressive 20 years ago. This first-person tale of a Taiwanese gay man reflecting on his life, loves, and intellectual influences is said to be one of the most important contemporary novels in Taiwan. I think what must have caught the prize readers’ attention is not necessarily the subject matter, at least not solely that, but the brilliance and creativity of the novel’s form, style, and synthesis of ideas.
True to its mid-1990s origins, the book is postmodern in style. The chapters function as snapshots, or time capsules, of moments in the narrator’s (Xiao Shao) life. Within each, however, is a unique and provocative kind of stylistic. T’ien-Wen moves back and forth between treatises on major concepts–psychology and medicine, literary theory and history, art and philosophy–and narration. This balancing of intellectual exposition with creative storytelling can be a bit jarring at first, as it feels in one moment that we are dealing with an academic essay and in the next, a rich, vibrant cultural story. It doesn’t take long to get used to the approach, though, and when one recognizes and accepts what’s happening, it becomes not just easy to enjoy the relationship between Xiao Shao’s personal moments and his intellectual ruminations related to them, but it also becomes an exhilarating exercise in elevated thought. The reader can, in other words, simultaneously relax and enjoy a beautifully tragic story while engaging critically with an incredible range of philosophical explorations. It’s the kind of storytelling one might expect from, say, a Tolstoy or Woolf; form a Joyce or Steinbeck. Perhaps the closest comparison I can make is to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as this novel, too, begins with a specific memory but then, as ruminations on the past tend to do, spreads rapidly into tangents and asides, some of which are easier to follow than others, and none of which tend to follow chronological order.
At the heart of the novel, holding together the story and its cultural and philosophical exercises, is one man’s journey through life and loss. The main concern for Xiao Shao, which fuels everything else that happens in the novel, is the loss of his dear, lifelong friend to AIDS. A year ago, if you had asked me to read another gay story about AIDS, I would have politely declined. That theme (rightly) dominated the genre for so long, that I became quickly burnt-out by it. But here’s the rub: aside from perhaps one British novel on the topic, all of the novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays that I had read about this topic were from the American perspective; after all, I am American and my history is intimately wrapped-up in what happened here in the United States. Reading about this crisis and how deeply and painfully it was felt on the other side of the world, though, reminds me just how intimately we are all connected, and just how quickly we can become myopic about what we think we know.
Despite the difficulties inherent in reading a translated novel, and particularly one in the challenging postmodern genre, I found myself unable to put this book down. It is somehow dense and light as a feather. It is erotic and illuminating. Xiao Shao’s journey was to me like an exposé, or an introduction, to the activism, society, love, culture, history, and poetry of Taiwan, all couched in universal metaphor, in western philosophy, and in cinema. I was delighted to be reminded of feminist film studies concepts like the “male gaze,” for example, alongside the anthropological theories of Lévi-Strauss and literary allusions to the likes of Beckett. If I had one negative reaction at all, it was in discovering that the author is a woman (which I realized late in the book, when I bothered to do a little research on T’ien Wen). I was under the impression, by my own fault, that the book was more autobiographical, so that was a minor disappointment. It is also the case that the vast majority of “LGBT” themed literature has been written by women and straight men, so I prefer, now, to search for those “own voices” writers. There was a time, however, when it was much more socially acceptable in the United States for women to write about same-sex love and relationships between men (read my book if you’re interested in learning more about that). It’s entirely possible that the same was true in Taiwan in the 1990s. Regardless, Notes of a Desolate Man is a gem; it is a gem as a story, a gem as a Taiwanese cultural artifact, and a gem as a literary masterwork.
I think it’s safe to say that this one has earned a permanent place in my library.