Streams

At Home In The Strange Latitudes Of 'Man With The Compound Eyes'

Sunday, May 25, 2014

It is so rare to find yourself at home in any book.

I mean, that's the soft sell, right? The promise, rarely fulfilled, of every story: That it will, for a moment or an hour, lift you effortlessly from where you are and deposit you somewhere completely elsewhere. Like dreaming. Like flying cross-country under the influence of pharmaceutical grade narcotics.

But to land again amid the pages, to look around and to recognize the place you've come to as easily as you do your own bedroom; to be able to curl into the pulp and ink and know this invented place in every smell, every sound — that's magic.

Especially when you've never been to Taiwan.

Especially when this Taiwan — the magical, spirit-infested Taiwan of Wu Ming-Yi's The Man with the Compound Eyes — isn't even the real Taiwan. And when the book wasn't even written in your language. Not originally, anyhow. When it is, in every way a book can be, alien.

The Man with the Compound Eyes is a translation, ably done by Darryl Sterk. It is a story about a middle-aged professor and writer who wants to die, and a young man exiled from an imaginary South Pacific island. Except that it's not. It's about a giant trash vortex — an island of garbage drifting around the Pacific ocean — and what happens when it crashes into the east coast of Taiwan. Except that, really, it's not about that either.

The young exile is riding on the trash island. The trash island hits the coast right where the suicidal professor lives, in a house by the sea, built by her missing husband, for her and their missing son. That's just the plot – more or less. But The Man with the Compound Eyes is just as much about stag beetles, mountaineering, love, sex, millet wine and whales. It's the kind of book where you read 50 pages and you think that nothing has happened, but then you think harder about it and realize that everything has happened.

There've been deaths and tsunamis and inexorable ecological disasters that play out not with Hollywood pyrotechnics, but in the slow, creeping way that some inexorable ecological disasters actually happen. And yet somehow, none of that has been as important as a shelf full of field guides left behind by a missing child, a slick of dead butterflies in the ocean or a tiny black-and-white kitten rescued from a flood.

Wu's world stinks and roars and trembles like the real one. His characters are not just full and round but, in their every small detail and stray thought, seem to stretch their own skins, swollen with a complex humanity, completely rooted in their universe of ghosts, garbage, sorrow and memory.

It is a striking book. An achingly sad book with tears on every page. It is science fiction (again, more or less) in the way that the best Margaret Atwood books are science fiction — set just minutes into the future because it couldn't rightly live anywhere else, and completely unconcerned with computers or spaceships or robots or any gimcrack technology, but only with the world as it might be tomorrow and the people left to live in it.

At the same time, it's really more in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magic realism, because Wu's is a future where sperm whales are the ghosts of dead sons and dreams occupy a richer and more pure terroir than the realities they mimic. In a breath or a turn of phrase, The Man with the Compound Eyes can encompass both of its genetic forebears and come equal with one or the other. It does not exceed either because, crazily, the words themselves seem to feel no need to exceed. The book just ... is. Haunting in its quietness and power.

I read it in four days, and then I read it again in two. I read it on the train, on my couch, standing on the street outside a beer garden with a couple of liters already in me and in my car while I drove — stealing a paragraph or a sentence while waiting for the light to change.

I couldn't put it down. Not because it's some canned thriller or amped-up page-turner all full of furious action, but simply because I missed the story when I wasn't living inside it. Because as distant and foreign as it was, as strange and ghost-wracked, as miserable and beautiful and painful as it was, The Man with the Compound Eyes felt like home.


Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. A Private Little War is his newest book.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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