NPR champions Taiwanese eco fantasy novel
June 11, 2014 | 4:25 pm
By Dan Bloom
Wu Ming-yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes, an eco fantasy is putting Taiwan on the international map in a novel way, with overseas editions appearing in London, New York and Paris. A recent NPR review by Jason Sheehan on the radio network’s website gave the novel high marks and praised the author for his powerful imagery.
Sheehan started off by telling reading: “It is so rare to find yourself at home in any book.”
Sheehan told me in an email after his review appeared that he has been freelancing for NPR for sometime now — ”mostly sci fi (as I also write sci fi on the side and am somewhat obsessed,” but occasionally other stuff as well.
When I asked him how he came across the Taiwanese novel he reviewed or whether the book review was assigned to him by the NPR books section, he replied: “I found Wu’s novel on a list of books being released and pitched it to the NPR, and they gave me the okay to write it up and then the book publisher in New York, knowing I was on a deadline, overnighted a copy of the book to me.”
Sheehan loved the novel and gushed and heaped praise on the little-known Taiwanese novel that is now finding readers overseas. Books from cool communist China get much more publicity in the West than novels from the small democratic island nation of Taiwan, so for NPR to even talk about a Taiwanese book is newsworthy.
“To land… amid the pages, to look around and to recognize the place you’ve come to as easily as you do your own bedroom; to be able to curl into the pulp and ink and know this invented place in every smell, every sound — that’s magic,” Sheehan said. “Especially when you’ve never been to Taiwan.”
”Especially when this Taiwan — the magical, spirit-infested Taiwan of Wu Ming-Yi’s ‘The Man with the Compound Eyes’ — isn’t even the real Taiwan,” he said. “And when the book wasn’t even written in your language. Not originally, anyhow. When it is, in every way a book can be, alien.”
Noting that the novel was translated by Taiwan University professor Darryl Sterk, a longtime Canadian expat, Sheehan said the novel is ”just as much about stag beetles, mountaineering, love, sex, millet wine and whales” as it is about the lives of the main characters in the book.”
Sheehan told readers he couldn’t put the book down and read it in four days and then read it again in two days.
“It’s the kind of book where you read 50 pages and you think that nothing has happened, but then you think harder about it and realize that everything has happened,” he said. “[There are] deaths and tsunamis and inexorable ecological disasters that play out not with Hollywood pyrotechnics, but in the slow, creeping way that some inexorable ecological disasters actually happen.”
Comparing Wu’s novel to Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism, Sheehan said the novel is “[haunting] in its quietness and power.”
He added that he loved the book ”not because it’s some canned thriller or amped-up page-turner all full of furious action, but simply because I missed the story when I wasn’t living inside it. Because as distant and foreign as it was, as strange and ghost-wracked, as miserable and beautiful and painful as it was, ‘The Man with the Compound Eyes’ felt like home.”
Calling Wu’s entrance into the Western publishing world a singular event, Sheehan characterized the novel as ”science fiction… in the way that the best Margaret Atwood books are science fiction — set just minutes into the future because it couldn’t rightly live anywhere else, and completely unconcerned with computers or spaceships or robots or any gimcrack technology, but only with the world as it might be tomorrow and the people left to live in it.”
Released last year in London to a thumbs-up review in the Guardian newspaper, Wu’s novel is set to be published in a French translation later this year in Paris.
Did the NPR review help boost sales of the novel in the America? Probably not much, but the NPR praise for a small Taiwanese eco-fiction novel still matters. It will find its audience slowly, but I am pretty sure this novel will become a classic of fantasy literature in the future.
Gray Tan, the literary agent in Taipei who sold the book to publishers to three publishers overseas, told me that while the NPR review was good and positive and will help boost the book’s visibility in America, he’s really waiting for — and hoping for — a big fat review in the New York Times, where books get “made” or not.
“Yes, the NPR review was wonderful,” Tan told me by email. “Everything helps. NPR helps enormously. But the holy grail of book reviews is still the New York Times.”