‘Just a book’ – The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

tmwtceIn his book, Consuming Fictions, Richard Todd asserts that “Serious literary fiction tends to exclude the best-selling genre-fiction categories such as crime or science fiction but may make use of some of the conventions of theses genres.” I’m pretty sure this is criticism’s greatest Get Out Of Jail Free Card; what he is saying is essentially, science fiction becomes serious literary fiction when I, Richard Todd, personally decide it is good enough. Todd is not a lone wolf of snobbish cultural ranking though, his assertion is the norm not only in critical circles but also in the reading population in general and it is based on a false interpretation of logical argument.

The argument most people believe is this: I do not like science fiction – but – I did like The Handmaid’s Tale – therefore – The Handmaid’s Tale cannot be science fiction.

The argument, correctly thought out, should be: I didn’t think I liked science fiction – but – I did like The Handmaid’s Tale – therefore – it turns out I do like some science fiction.

It is a nonsense to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is either serious literary fiction or science fiction. It is both. I would be grateful if we could accept this and move on to The Man with the Compound Eyes?

No? OK. Can we move on anyway?

It appears to be obligatory to compare Wu Ming-Yi’s new novel with Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell in all reviews even though The Man with the Compound Eyes has little in common with the work of the former and almost nothing in common with the work of the latter. The only real similarity I can see is that Wu Ming-Yi has, like Murakami and Mitchell before him, been deemed to have passed a kind-of ‘Richard Todd Test’ of literary acceptability. Fear not wary literary consumer, The Man with the Compound Eyes is serious literary fiction.

But is it any good?

I honestly couldn’t tell you.

I admit this is something of a problem.

What with me reviewing the book and all.

Yeah, sorry about that.

Allow me to explain…

The Man with the Compound Eyes is a Taiwanese novel. As with any novel in translation, it is sometimes hard to tell if its faults were present in the original. Whatever its source though, stilted dialogue is rife. Is this a cultural thing? I don’t know? Perhaps people do talk like they are reading menus to each other all the time in Taiwan? I seriously doubt it, obviously, but I am happy to concede that a different formulation of speech patterns may translate badly. Or maybe the author is trying to portray that the characters speech is stilted because they are often communicating in their second language and they are bound by the constraints of their knowledge? Maybe. In the end I don’t care, at least not enough to forgive the experience of reading The Man with the Compound Eyes, which is skull-itchingly annoying. And the stilted language is not restricted to dialogue, it seeps everywhere. Even the title is a word longer than it needs to be. What is the point of the second ‘the’? In what way is the shorter, and more grammatically correct, The Man with Compound Eyes, not snappier?

Another major problem I had with The Man with the Compound Eyes is that so many paragraphs expand with the reverse flow usually reserved for bad holiday anecdotes, where every statement doesn’t make sense until the next (And then Gerald fell in the water and put his arm in a stomach. Did I mention we were on the ferry at this point? This was on the Wednesday. I did say the tsunami was on the Monday, yes?. I did mention the tsunami, didn’t I? Bodies everywhere. Terrible thing.) You don’t mind this sort of thing from your Great Aunt over a couple of Camparis in an airport in Coventry, but when a novelist does it you all but scream JUST REDRAFT THE PARAGRAPH YOU HELMET!

OK, I might have screamed it once.

OK, I might have screamed it in Nandos, and I might be barred now, and they might have just started doing these chicken thighs on a skewer thing, and I might be upset that I won’t get to have them again now, and I might be taking it out on the novel, but please, Wu Ming-Yi, just redraft your paragraphs. Throw us a biscuit.

Ironically, I guess, these faults are just the sort of thing that your average reader of science fiction is supposedly prepared to overlook if the story is good enough and that your average reader of serious literary fiction is supposed to abhor. You could make the argument, I concede, that The Man with the Compound Eyes is, in part, about the difficulty of communication across languages but if you genuinely believe translation leaves a weaker product perhaps you should take some advice from Tommy Cooper’s doctor and stop doing it. In the end, I suppose, The Man with the Compound Eyes is just a book (and one that many people will enjoy – the reader reviews on Goodreads are almost universally enthusiastic) and I shouldn’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.

So, I didn’t like The Man with the Compound Eyes but I’m not prepared to say it is a bad novel. But, when compared to Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, or China Miéville’s Embassytown, or Atwood, or David Foster Wallace, or Marie Darrieussecq, it clearly doesn’t have as much to offer the reader as most reviews seem to suggest.

Any Cop?: Not convincing as literary or genre fiction.

 

Benjamin Judge


About this entry