Book Review

The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

excellent 1990s spec fic from Taiwan

The Membranes is a 1996 novel written by Chi Ta-Wei, a queer Taiwanese writer, academic and translator, and this is a recent translation completed by Ari Larissa Heinrich, and published by Columbia University Press as part of the series: Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan.

If you don’t know what the difference is between Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China), then isn’t the place for you to learn about that; similarly, if you don’t know about Taiwan’s vague international geopolitical status, head elsewhere to learn about that. The details about life in Taiwan that are mentioned below are taken from the essay (written by the translator) included at the end of The Membranes, which explains the contexts of the novel. Taiwan was under military rule (essentially a dictatorship if not “officially” one) until the late 1980s, when – at the same time as Chi Ta-Wei was “coming of age” – there was the removal of mass censorship and thus a sudden influx of international film, literature, music, and other media.

So (according to Heinrich’s essay), Taiwanese film and literature from the 1990s is very different to writing from the decades before, due to the sudden expansion of available influences. This closing essay makes an excellent case for reading more within contemporary-ish Taiwanese literature, describing how this writing contains a unique combination of traditional Chinese narrative forms supplemented by deep and non-chronological references to 50 years’ worth of popular, obscure, high and low culture from across the rest of the world.

In the space of a few years, half a century of mass culture from Japan, Europe & the USA, was collectively released into Taiwan’s consciousness.

Heinrich’s essay includes many references to interviews, essays and articles written by Chi Ta-Wei that discuss the arbitrary nature of cultural engagement at that time in Taiwan. Apparently it was difficult to find specific films or books, be those in translation or in English (Chi Ta-Wei translated several European texts into Chinese using English translations from French/Italian etc as his source), so one read, watched or listened to what happened to be available. There were seemingly bottomless opportunities for new cultural objects to engage with (a foretaste of the content-dump of the globalised internet), and there was lots to be excited by, a smorgasbord (remember that word???) of inspiration of disparate qualities, tones, ideologies and imageries. It was an exciting time.

As you can probably tell from above, what I found most exciting about this edition of The Membranes was the postscript essay on the Taiwanese literary scene, something I had known literally nothing about beforehand. I’m super into literary biography and cultural history, it’s the kind of writing that really gets me excited. It’s important to note, though, that I wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm I did for Taiwanese literary history by the end of the novel if the novel itself hadn’t been excellent.

This is speculative fiction set in an alternative version of the future (I know it is alternative because it was first published in 1996 and refers to preceding events [that didn’t happen] in the ’80s and ’90s), when all of humanity has retreated beneath the sea due to the destroyed ozone layer and dangerous radiation everywhere. Other than living underwater not much has changed, except for the prevalence of human-robot-cyborg creations that are used for both menial work and as organ farms.

The narrative focuses on Momo, a celebrity dermatologist who has a fraught, fractured, relationship with her mother, and as the text goes on she recalls memories of operations and surgeries and relationships with cyborgs, reality begins to slip and there is an engagingly-foreshadowed-yet-engagingly-surprising revelation about her life towards novel’s end.

The Membranes has a super-engaging melancholic tone throughout, and through its engagement with bodily autonomy, with ideas around sex and gender, queer relationships and the interplay between physicality and identity, the novel feels very prescient despite being over 25 years old.

It’s an excellent, moving, novel with enough emotional heft to pilot its way through Momo’s intentionally-mundane life as depicted in the opening few chapters, i.e. the mundanity is interrogated, undercut and ultimately explained. The Membranes is a great novel. I’d recommend it, and I can certainly see myself looking up several of the texts referred to in the essay at the end to expand my experiential experience of contemporary Taiwanese literature. Thanks a lot!

Order direct from the publisher via this link

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