"He was weak already, but he let me talk to him for two whole nights. I went on and on about our youth and our teen years, every movie, every theme song, like fallen nobility airing embroidered silks under a winter sun. I sang the theme song to Man of La Mancha with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren: 'To dream the impossible dream....'"
What could have hastened Ah Yao's death more than that song, unless maybe something from Cats? But there is beauty in this scene of two moribund mandarins. Xiao Shao meanders promiscuously among all kinds of high cultural artifacts--films, food, philosophers--in a way that makes clear his homelessness and disconnection from the past.
Notes of a Desolate Man is marketed to make you think it's a lyrical and exotic memoir with a gay sensibility. It's not. Linda Secondari's jacket design makes you expect a book like Mishima's Confessions of a Mask, only more cutting-edge, with its distressed type (cool!), St. Sebastian full of arrows (deviants!), and a bit of Chinese neon hotel sign. The book disappoints all these expectations, but it is rewarding in other ways as a meditation on history and postmodern culture.
"Huang," in the Chinese title, Huangren shouji, means "desolate," but also conveys infertility, ridiculousness, and being out of practice. Xiao Shao is all these things, a Don Quixote, or rather, what would result if Borges' Pierre Menard had authored Man of La Mancha. And Xiao Shao, as a gay man, violates the most important precept of traditional culture: production of a male heir. The inability to pass on a tradition is at issue here, and he is seen as emblematic of the dilemmas of Taiwanese culture: It's not Chinese, not Western, not Japanese--so what is it? What, of value, can it leave to the future?
When Chu's book won the 1994 China Times Literary Supplement novel prize, it was not taken as a work of gay literature, but more as another amazing act of literary ventriloquism by a woman writer already famous for her screenplays for Hou Hsiao-hsien, and her short stories and essays. It was, "Oh, how daring and original to impersonate a gay man." But in its execution, the novel walks a familiar path in modern Chinese literature begun in the '20s with Yu Dafu, who represented China as a moping, pretentious adolescent who can't stop masturbating. The novel is very far from gay books like Pai Hsien-yung's Crystal Boys, with its characters' crazed and obsessive passions. The frigidity, sterility, and depression of the Desolate Man, and his annoyingly coy attitude toward sex, is quite a contrast with the hopped-up hysterics of Pai Hsien-yung's "deviants." There's little passion here, only self-pity. Chu was trying to make a point about Taiwan, not gay life.
Not everyone in Taiwan feels a sense of collective cultural doom, even if the island is under constant threat of a massive invasion if it declares formal independence. A borderland of the Pacific Rim, it is a confluence of many cultures--aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, northern Chinese, American--an exciting and vibrant place unlike anywhere in the world. But officially there appears to be some anxiety about Taiwan's cultural identity. Even last month, six years after Chu's novel, a culture bureaucrat in the new government of Ch'en Shui-bian was in Los Angeles outlining a plan to entrench Taiwan's cultural identity. Embrace tradition, she said, but in a multicultural spirit; look to aboriginal, Taiwanese culture; and don't forget Paris and New York. Chu's novel makes fun of these totalizing ideas. If the prose is turgid and the references mind-numbing clichés, the philosophers too embarrassing to mention now (nobody reads Lévi-Strauss anymore), there's a satiric intelligence at work. How can you not laugh out loud when, right after alluding to Goethe and Pushkin, Xiao Shao says, "but my own Jiminy Cricket inside my gut said...."
In fact, the book is a constant stream of allusion to the detritus of the cultures of the developed world. As the reader progresses, the trash accumulates. Fellini, The Fly, Romeo Gigli, Paris, Rome, Bodhgaya.... This is the same technique Hou Hsiao-hsien uses in his films. Imagine Eliot's Waste Land as a Chinese garden, filmed by Hou, and you get the idea. Giorgio Agamben in The Man Without Content puts the situation this way: "Loss of tradition means that the past has lost its transmissibility, and so long as no new way has been found to enter into a relation with it, it can only be the object of accumulation from now on." The American reader who sticks with this strange book to the bitter end might recognize in the flotsam accumulating on the Pacific Rim some of our own cultural luggage.