Notes of a Desolate Man (Chu T’ien-wen)

Posted: June 15, 2017 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Written in the late 1990s, this is a novel about Taiwanese homosexual men. In many ways, the story was really depressing, not just because the first-person narrator writes as a way of coping with his grief after his friend dies.

I boarded the first plane to Tokyo, then took the Ome Line train to Fussa. At the Fussa Clinic I saw Ah Yao, sunk into the hollow of his bedding, and spent his last five days with him. I can still say that AIDS is horrifying, but the price of loneliness is higher.

No, the much more depressing fact about the book is just how little of it is uniquely Taiwanese. With different names, this could have been about gay men in the United States. They follow the same culturally approved pattern that gay men in the west do: they accept their sexuality sometime in their teens or early twenties, then they run after sex like they have to meet a quota – like if they don’t sleep with a thousand different men before the age of twenty-eight, they have to give up being gay and marry a woman – and then they die of AIDS. Thanks to advances in technology, the dying-of-AIDS part is happening a lot less now than it used to, but this book is set during the 1990s, so the gay community is more strongly marked by absence and loss.

But even though the loss is devastating, I have to come back to this cultural question. Why are gay Asian men so similar to gay North American men? Is Taiwan so invested in American culture that some people are losing their connection to their own traditions? Ah Yao runs off to live in San Francisco and New York, just like any other gay man of the time, but the narrator lives primarily in Taipei. Is it true what I read in that homophobic French book about masculinity a while back, that there are noticeable cultural similarities among all gay men, no matter what their culture of origin? Or is it as the narrator thinks, that being gay necessarily separates us from the culture of our country, and that without procreation we have no place in normal society?

This last question I must answer with an emphatic No. I admit that the world has changed in the last twenty years, so I may not be reacting to the same world that these characters are, but I do not see any great separation between Us and Them. Thinking of my own experience, Dallas has a Gayborhood, but we’re not required to live and work there. Two of my friends got together because they taught in the same school, and the students encouraged them to get together – at a time when I would have been in middle school. Most of my gay male friends have close relationships with heterosexual women. And, oddly enough, a lot of gay people seem to be closer to their parents than straight people. Because we have fewer responsibilities with spouses and children, it is easier for aging parents to rely on us to fulfill their needs. That doesn’t really apply to me, since I have six siblings who are all more willing to care for our mother than I am, and a couple of them could be coaxed into caring for our father. Also, I’ve spent more than thirty years cultivating the image among my family that I’m useless in practical concerns, so I doubt they actually expect much from me.

But from what I can see, gay people are actually quite interested in whatever culture is happening around them. Maybe they’re in local theatre companies, or attending local art exhibitions, or reciting a liturgy in some High Church service, but we’re pretty deeply involved in local culture. The specifically gay aspects of our lives we save for the people who care about them, just like Christians who don’t talk about their religion at work. For example, I’m interested in my family history, which is one of my mother’s big interests, encouraged by her religious beliefs. I don’t have to believe that they’re converting to my way of thinking in the afterlife to want to learn who they were and how they lived.

We do see a hint of this with Ah Yao, who lives with his mother and tortures her by bringing his boys home to have really loud sex while she tries to turn the television loud enough to cover the noise. It’s one thing to say that your parents have to accept who you are, but being rude about it is something else. I mean, straight people don’t shove their sex lives in their parents’ faces; there’s no need for us to do that.

But I suppose the cultural similarities make the book easier to relate to. It seems to have been one of a short series of Taiwanese novels to be translated; I think the translation process is difficult because so few works make it across the Pacific. And really, find a forty-year-old gay man who can’t identify with this:

Eventually we had to admit to ourselves that there was no true hair restorer anywhere, just as there was no elixir of immortality. We admitted that our youth was gone and that we were paying the price for exhausting our energy and vitality as young men. We aged earlier, developed addictions, were afflicted with hidden illnesses, and died young.

I take issue with the idea here that aging prematurely is the result of too much gay sex, as if they’re being punished for having enjoyed their youth. I was celibate until marriage (age 24), completely faithful to my wife for eight years, and didn’t have gay sex until I was 34. Still, at 37, my hair is getting thin enough that I’ve nearly got a bald spot in the back, it’s greyer than that of people fifteen years older than I am, and I have to work hard to keep my weight reasonable. Age happens to us all; it’s not a punishment. And even if it were, it would be happening to everyone, regardless of their sexual habits or orientation. The signs of aging are much more likely to be caused by stress, or in other words, not enjoying life enough. Being happy in a way that doesn’t make you feel guilty seems key.

Paradoxically, Narrator and I seem to have reached the same conclusion by taking opposite paths:

My greatest consolation was to be alone with words in a clean house.

Eventually he finds someone like himself, who enjoys quiet activities and great sex, and they’re very happy together. I keep hoping that someday I’ll find my Yongjie, but I haven’t yet. I meet people (and hear stories of them) who realize that they’re happier without trying to find someone, so they live their lives alone. I’m not there yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. As I described myself to one such friend, when I’m eighty-five and living in a nursing home I’ll be flirting with the hot young seventy-year-olds. I don’t believe that I’ll ever stop looking for love. Now that I’m certain that it won’t happen with my current him, I keep looking outward, hoping one day to meet someone who likes reading and hiking and being quiet as much as I do. I’m not quite ready to leave him yet, but I’m gearing myself up for it.

Narrator gives his memories in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, so sometimes it’s hard to know what the timeframe is. I’m not sure it’s all that significant, anyway.

While I’m on the subject of gay culture, I want to mention a couple of other things. Yes, it’s great that we have the right to marry (in the United States) and there’s a general degree of acceptance. However. We’ve accomplished this by pushing the idea that ‘We’re just like you,’ which means that whatever truly unique aspects our community had are passing away. My friends are skipping the Columbus Pride parade because “it’s too family-friendly.” Gay is the culturally approved method of being edgy and cool, so we’re targets for hipsters who don’t want to try too hard. Sometimes I feel like we’re pit bulls who have had our teeth pulled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the Gay Best Friend. To see this in action, watch the gritty reboot of the Archie comics, Riverdale. Now, most of this I thoroughly enjoyed, but I seriously object to the way that Veronica treats Kevin. When she first arrives in Riverdale, she’s happy that she can have a GBF, but she basically treats him like an adorable accessory instead of a human being. Most of the time she ignores him, but when she wants to rebel she takes him out for the evening. It’s odd because the writers try so hard to humanize and soften her in every other respect. I guess it’s still cool to Other gays as long as you do it in the same way you shave your poodle. Betty just treats him like her best friend, where being gay is about as significant as having brown hair, which I take as a sign of sincerity and moral value. I was a little worried about the series because I don’t have a lot of patience for high school drama, but this first season at least is a murder mystery, which I love. Riverdale isn’t as good as How to Get Away with Murder, but it held my attention. The series I’m enjoying with (I think) a healthy attitude toward sexuality is Sense8. It’s about eight people whose minds are linked, so as they share ideas and experiences, the sexuality becomes more fluid. The gangster and the cop, tough as they are, get mentally linked into the gay sex and participate, but it doesn’t diminish any of their stereotypically masculine qualities or behaviors. It’s like in Penny Dreadful when Ethan Chandler has a night with Dorian Grey without compromising his identity.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. This book was short and kept me reading, but it’s not happy. It’s one of those stories where being gay is a tragedy and leads to death, and even when Narrator finds his husband and settles down, he tells us of his insecurity and unhappiness rather than his joy. There are so many great things in the lives of gay men; I don’t want to spend all my time with this kind of depressing material. Maybe back then people weren’t talking about our joy, but we are now. Let’s tell happy stories; after all, Ginsberg’s line in “Howl” is about screaming with joy, not pain. Let’s spread the joy – the world has enough of the other stuff.

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