Notes of a
Desolate Man

Chu T'ien-Wen
Howard Goldblatt,
Sylvia Li-Chun Lin,
Translators

(Columbia)

Xiao Shao is gay, and his best friend and one-time lover Ah Yao is dying of AIDS. They come from Taipei, but they also come from deep within Western culture and art. They can speak of traditional Chinese poetry, and in the same breath quote from Fellini and LÚvi-Strauss, even make cryptic reference to 4' 33" --- John Cage's composition in which a pianist sits before the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, in silence.

All the bleak angsts of the nineties are there: death of the beautiful and the young, ecological waste and trash, sex as a (literally) dead-end, and, god forbid, "the barren trash-heap of wild fantasy:"

    Eventually I could think of nothing, and could only stare blankly at a square of dusty sky through the air vent above me, like an empty heart submerged in desolation....a nauseating stench poured in from toilets at the end of the hallway.

Boredom, loneliness, ennui: these guys have it all, and so, natch, they have nothing. Their lives turn a meaningless dance around the world --- Taiwan, New York, Paris, Rome. Lust becomes their only game, with occasional meditations on Foucault, who, they admit, had something they lack: "For others, finding an answer was mere sophistry, but for him, it was a matter of life or death:"

    The answer can be obtained only by trading one's life for it, and since every answer is destined for a specific individual, it cannot be transmitted to anyone else.

Knowledge, travel, book learning does nothing for these ennui-mongers:

    It is depressing to think that we are old and near death by the time we finally grasp our answers, after such a long, arduous trek. The fruit we harvest after so many hardships --- a lifetime of experience, vision, and the ability to appreciate it --- will simply turn to dust, completely useless to anyone. We are eager to teach the next generation, but are considered outmoded.

Even when they come upon the startling philosophy of the existentialists, it turns to ashes:

    LÚvi-Strauss pointed out early that existentialism is overindulgent in the contemplation of the self, elevating personal anxiety to the level of a serious philosophical issue, which can result in a kind of salesgirl metaphysics.

"Salesgirl metaphysics." Great phrase. And, here, misapplied --- grotesquely so. For the existentialists had an essence to ground them. It was called "ultimate despair" --- a despair a bit more significant than the despair of boredom. For the world-view of Sartre, Camus, Unimuno et al grew out of a World War in which the enemy and the world turned so appallingly demonic that they came to question the very gods of creation. Xiao Shao and Ah Yao and their pals just don't get that.

Notes of a Desolate Man is like a three week journey on the Trans-Siberian railway. And as with such a journey, how does one communicate total desolation without frying the mind of the reader or, in the case of one of them, without making him eager to lay it down and be done with it. Ms. T'ien-wen's writing is epic --- but not in the Homeric sense: it has the circularity (or to put a fine point on it) the repetition of the epic --- but not a whit of the grandeur. It goes round and round, full of empty passion and philosophical drivelling, making us think of Eliot's bagladies circling endlessly around their dust-strewn empty lots.

The art of writing about a hero soaked in ennui is not to swamp the reader in ennui. Rather, it is to give to the ennui a mythic structure and, at the same time, tell a story we can hate, love, relate to, despair of --- but not subside in, like a big pot of fat. Perhaps we should send Ms. T'ien-wen with all her literary and cultural namedropping off for a year's sabattical at the Camus Institute. Maybe that could bring her, and her bone-tired, bored, tendentious characters to a belated life.


--- C. J. Wright

 

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