The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7

 

Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video. https://fund.theoceancleanup.com/

 

Oh yeah, that other book Michael Pollan wrote…

Garden books and winter go together.  After the garden has been covered over,  – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read?

Of course, by now someone has told you that you HAVE to pick up a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (if you haven’t already).  But before The Omnivore’s Dilemma; before “Eat Food.  Not Too Much.  Mostly Plants.” was made into a bumper sticker; before he wrote the letter telling the Obama’s to plant veggies on the White House lawn;  before all that Michael Pollan wrote a book called Second Nature:  A Gardener’s Education.  And by any standard it was, and remains, a beautiful piece of writing.

With the harvest moon, which usually arrives towards the end of September, the garden steps over into that sweet, melancholy season when ripe abundance mingles with auguries of the end anyone can read.  Except, perhaps, some of the tropical annuals, which seem to bloom only more madly the closer the frost comes.  Mindless of winter’s approach and the protocols of dormancy, the dahlia and the marigold, the tomato and basil, make no provision for frost, which might be a month away, or a day.  The annuals in September practice none of the inward turning of the hardy perennials, which you can see slowing down, taking no chances, turning their attention from blossom and leaf to root and stashed starch.  But instead of battening down the hatches, saving something for another day, the annuals throw themselves at the thinning sun, open-armed and ingenuous.  On those early autumn days when frost hangs in the air like a sword of Damocles, evident as sunlight to the lowest creature, is there anything more poignant than a dahlia’s blithe, foolhardy bloom?

Divided into four parts, conveniently corresponding to the four seasons, Second Nature was chosen by the American Horticultural Society as one of the seventy-five greatest gardening books written.  It was the book that put Michael Pollan’s blip on the radar.

Pollan’s attraction, in part, is his laid back take on the environment.  Consider: Eat Food.  Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Not exactly the rallying cry of St. Crispin’s Day, is it?  Pollan has always struck me as the X-Generation’s environmentalist:  Eating his sushi at Nobu. Planting a tree only to find out after the fact he’s put in an invasive species.  Refusing to bow down at the altar of composting (an act he admits borders on heresy in some circles).  Or, my personal favorite, smirking at the pretensions of Thoreau playing at hermit in the forest.  Pollan makes environmentalism accessible to the masses.

Second Nature is the rare gardening/environmental book in that it is concerned with the real work of gardening. What many see as mundane tasks – mowing the lawn, weeding, composting and planting  – these gain greater social and political significance in Pollan’s hands.  He shows them to be more than simple acts which result in pretty landscapes or homegrown tomatoes in summer.  Second Nature calls upon readers to form a backyard environmental movement.

At the same time it provides a visceral scrapbook of what happens inside of a garden, embracing the Sisyphean cycle of planting, growing, harvest and death that is repeated yearly in backyards across the country.  Pollan’s genius is that he views the garden as both a micro- and  macrocosm.  Like Voltaire, he urges us to tend to our own garden. But he also applies this same philosophy to our greater environmental concerns.   He points out that, having taken the step to cultivate the earth, we have taken on the responsibility of managing it.   We  have insinuated ourselves into nature, irrevocably altering the “natural” course, which means we cannot step out and expect an anthropomorphized version of “Nature” to step back in as if there had been no interruption.  We cannot make the mistake of romanticizing nature, the virgin forest or the primeval landscape.  We must learn to work with what we have… what in many ways we have wrought.  Ultimately, the habits which make a good gardener, he believes, will make good environmentalists.

The gardener doesn’t take it for granted that man’s impact on nature will always be negative.  Perhaps he’s observed how his own garden has made this path of land a better place, even by nature’s own standards.  His gardening has greatly increased the diversity and abundance of life in this place.  Besides the many exotic species of plants he’s introduced, the mammal, rodent, and insect populations have burgeoned, and his soil supports a much  richer community of microbes than it did before….

The gardener doesn’t feel that by virtue of the fact that he changes nature he is somehow outside of it.  He looks around and sees the human hopes and desires are by now part and parcel of the landscape.  The “environment” is not, and has never been, a neutral, fixed backdrop; it is in fact alive, changing all the time in response to innumerable contingencies, one of these being the presence within it of the gardener.  And that presence is neither inherently good now bad.

By constantly shifting his perspective from the forest to the trees and back again, Pollan provides a larger action plan which can be implemented at a truly grass-roots level.  The genius is that he does so without ever stepping outside of his own garden.  In Second Nature he is not an environmental prophet, but another pilgrim on the journey. Sometimes misstepping, yet still doggedly making his way.  Trowel in hand.

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Phineas William Walsh is on a mission.  He’s going to save the world one endangered species at a time – and he’s depending on the Green Channel to help him do it.  That is until things go terribly, horribly wrong… as they only can in the life of a fourth grader.

Carla Gunn’s first novel, Amphibian, is both entertaining and engaging.  Written in the first person, it’s greatest strength may be it’s  narrator –  who owes a significant debt to Holden Caulfield (the hero and narrator of Catcher in the Rye).  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Because there’s more going on in Phin’s life than meets the eye – and he has a lot on his mind other than the planet.   His grandfather just passed away and his grandmother is sad.  His parents are separated and his Mom is dating a guy Phin doesn’t like. Not that he likes the idea of her dating. Period.  His father is out of the country 80% of the time and doesn’t know what’s going on.  He’s also the class bully’s favorite target.

And then (if that wasn’t enough!) there is the issue of the Gorachs from the planet Reull.  They’re destroying the planet and the other creatures of Reull need to figure out what to do before it is too late:

When my mom went to do some work in her study, I went upstairs and wrote about Reull and drew some pictures of them.  I drew the Jingleworm, who is red and white and has a part on the end of its body that jingles like a bell wherever it goes.  The Jingleworm’s predator is the Three-clawed Wren and it jingles so much that the Wren doesn’t have any problem finding it to eat.

But then the Jingleworms started to hide in the coat of the Green-tailed Squirrel, which didn’t mind because the loud jingling noise of the Jingleworm scared away its predator, the Electric Cat.  The Electric Cat’s ears are very sensitive to the jingling noise.  To it the Jingleworm sounds like somebody scraping their nails on a chalkboard sounds to us.  Sot the Jingleworm and the Green-tailed Squirrel have a symbiotic relationship.

The problem again is the Gorachs.  They are starting to collect Jingleworm tails for jingly bracelets, which they give to their Gorach children.  The Gorachs are parasites, so many of the animals are working on making more symbiotic relationships.  The Gorachs are in for a surprise.

Sure, it has become a cliché to compare novels narrated by juveniles to Catcher in the Rye, but in the case of Amphibian it works.  I’ve always believed that readers tend to miss the whole point of what Salinger was trying to do, – not surprising since his novel has mainly been defined by controversy.  The focus has always been on Salinger’s creation of a smart ass kid doing scandalous things, at least by 1950’s standards.  (You can just imagine what the reaction would have been to Gossip Girl)!

Subsequently, the story Salinger was trying  to tell is too often overlooked.  It is about a young boy, whose even younger brother has just died of leukemia.  Catcher in the Rye, at its heart, is about Holden attempting to deal with his grief.  And doing so in the absence of (I’d even go so far as to say his abandonment by) the adults who should be comforting him.  All the rest, the celebrated language and famous scene with the prostitute, is just so much white noise put up by Holden between himself and his emotions.

I do not want to misrepresent Amphibian as being a heavy novel, though it does touch on some surprisingly heavy material.  Phin is dealing with kinds of grief (and accompanying feelings of helplessness) that he’s too young to put a name to.  Or, like Holden, to even recognize.  But to Gunn’s credit, she chose to tell her story through the eyes of a 9-year old boy – which gives it a very different flavor than if it had been told by, let’s say, that boy’s mother or teacher.  Gunn reveals what’s going on with Phin in a way that perfectly captures a young child’s lack of perspective.   Divorce, bully, species extinction and permission to watch the Green Channel all carry equal weight and importance in Phin’s world.  Because everything is the end of the world – nothing is.  And Phin is a really funny kid.  His humor moves the book along quickly and, thankfully, saves it from becoming the angst-fest it might have been.

This morning I woke up to an awful sound – it was like a wolf trying to howl after swallowing one of those birthday-party noisemakers.  And it was standing over me.

I was a little worried about what I might see – maybe a pack of wolves having a birthday party and the cake just happened to be me – but I took a chance and opened my eyes.  My mother was standing there and that awful noise was coming from her.  She was smiling so I figured she wasn’t choking or something, so I asked her what the heck she was doing.

“I’m yodeling, Phin,” she said.

“But you’re not on a mountain,” I said.  “You’re standing over me making that awful sound.  I thought you were a wolf with something caught in its throat.  If you were a wolf, you’d have to be the alpha because if you were a submissive, the others would attack you for making a sound like that.”

Overall, Amphibian tells a good story about an average child working his way through a world where very little is under his control.  Carla Gunn allows us to smile at his tribulations knowing, even if he doesn’t, that Phin is one of the lucky ones.  Unlike Holden he has grown-ups around who love him and have his best interests at heart.  In the end, that makes all the difference.

Note:  Amphibian is Carla Gunn’s first novel.  While I’ve no knowledge of it being marketed as a YA, it is definitely  straddling the line between categories.  It does not rank high on the BookSexy scale, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Think of it as enviro-lit made more palatable by added sugar.

The book, itself, is more attractive than your average paperback  – with bright glossy covers.  The front end paper is a full page bleed b&w photo of a South America Red-eyed frog (the same little guy who made the cover).  The pages are nice and thick with a slightly corrugated texture.  The publisher is Coach House Books, out of Canada.

Feeling too sexy for your organic unbleached cotton WWF (that’s World Wildlife Fund) tee? Do I have the book for you!

Green is the new black. At least, that’s what the marketing machine is telling us. Global warming, hybrid cars, organic products, shopping locally, thinking globally, recycling, composting, low VOC, bamboo…has anyone else noticed that you can make absolutely ANYTHING out of bamboo?! It’s all a little overwhelming and a lot scary. But BookSexy is not about sticking your head in the ground just because the view is unpleasant. So, I’ve been searching for a book on the environment that won’t send me crashing into a bleak, black pit of despair. (Good luck with that).

And then I realized that what I needed was to shift my thinking. Going green is about the planet – not about us. So maybe it is time to take “us” out of the equation.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is a fascinating and surprisingly hopeful little book (thinner than its 336 pages would suggest). The premise is simple – what if every single human being disappeared from the planet Earth? The author wisely avoids the question of why or how – it’s not really relevant to this conversation.The important thing is that we are left with a planet, sans humans, and a question…what would happen to the stuff we left behind?

And we would be leaving behind A LOT! (Next blog entry – Organize It!: How to Unclutter Every Nook & Cranny In and Outside Your Home by Mervyn Kaufman). There’s the obvious landscape of buildings, roads and subways – which are much more fragile than you probably realize. What happens to them is pretty interesting. But it’s the small things we never notice, think about, or really even need that may have the biggest impact on the planet.

Plastics aren’t necessarily forever – but they might as well be. And they are EVERYWHERE! For example, remember that great scrubbing body wash you bought that smells nice and leaves your skin smooth and silky? Well, more than likely those little beads loofah-ing away the dead skin are made of teeny tiny pieces of plastic which end up in the oceans. Once there they are eaten by plankton, which in turn is eaten by whales and fish, which in turn… I think you get the point. Plastic q-tips (and plastic tampon “applicators” – ewww!) don’t bio-degrade. It seems that a large amount of these end up floating in the oceans and up onto the shore. Speaking of floating in the oceans… there are huge land masses of plastic being formed as we speak, and plate tectonics have NOTHING to do with it.

Here’s another surprise… what’s taking the most room in our landfills? You were going to guess plastic, weren’t you? Or Kevin Federline CD’s? Well, it might just be paper. Can you imagine?! One of the easiest things to recycle… and its filling up our landfills!

And the list goes on.

So… I mentioned hope. Well, it seems, if humans disappeared tomorrow….

(Segue: My personal theory is Zombies… everything becomes more interesting when you add zombies. A zombie virus strikes. The human race becomes an army of the undead and eventually disappears as the food supply of un-infected brains dwindles…)

Ahem!

….If humans disappeared tomorrow… the good news is that the planet would go on without us. Animals would adjust. Apparently, just like us, some wouldn’t make it. Some would. Many endangered species could make a rebound. A lot of the animals we’ve domesticated wouldn’t stand a chance on their own. Much of the land would revert to what it was like before we got here. Deciduous forests (the non-evergreen ones) would make a comeback. In many ways, the Earth would reclaim and rebuild itself.

The good news is that much the same could happen with us still here. Because, while much of what we’ve done is not reversible, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world either (no pun intended). Something as simple as recycling is a great step in the right direction – a more important one than I think most people credit. And there are so many other things, on an individual level very little things, that could make a huge difference. The message here is that we could still rebuild – like the bionic man we could make it better. Unless, of course, the zombies show up…

Suggested reading locations:   Coffee shops, internet cafes, Green Peace rallies, hiking through Montana or sitting by the fire at a historic lodge in the middle of a National Park. Any New England or Northwestern State. Parks. What’s nice about this book is that the idea of a world without humans gives a slight science fiction vibe – keeping things light. At the same time, its still an environmental book that just might get the attention of that granola girl at the local Hava Java sipping her organic, free trade Kenyan coffee latte. Good luck!