Fuckin brilliant. Works like this make me feel like I need to read mountains and mountains of works like this. Sorry for gushing, but seriously… And I know expletives are supposed to make one look dumber (they are a known intellect killer; smart people know how to use their words well—they know how to explain complex ideas well), but seriously…
Tan Lin’s “ambient” novel, Insomnia and the Aunt, is described as a work that “explores the relationship between technology, television, and human experience,” but it is so much more than this, or anyone’s, simple explanation of it. Physically speaking, Insomnia and the Aunt is a hybrid accumulation of photographs, footnotes, and snippets of (fictionalized?) reality; but like all great things, it is greater than the sum of its parts.
Disclaimer: I love short writing; I love works that are constructed from seemingly disconnected pieces. To be sure, this work is not great in the traditional sense; it is not structured with a clear narrative in mind, nor does it have a clear character. If you are a traditional story-arch reader, this book is most definitely not for you. But if you are a reader constantly searching for the poetic in the mundane, the cerebral expression that is this book is refreshing.
Many people are confused and think that Insomnia and the Aunt is a story about a Chinese American family, or, more specifically, about the narrator’s memories of his Chinese American aunt, but in reality it’s more than that. What most people miss is the fact that the fictional aunt in the story is not only fictional in relation to Tan Lin (author), but more than likely, also fictional in relation to the narrator. The careful reader discovers this pretty early on:
The names for my family are linked, like a mirror or perhaps a footnote, to the physical world and to social inconsistencies and historical accidents. In other worlds, my mother and father rarely saw my aunt in my presence, except maybe once on our first and only visit to a Chinese restaurant in Spokane. (14)
From this page forward, it seems that the best interpretation of the aunt is allegory. Without reading the aunt literally, the ‘factual’ information offered by the narrator is simply an observation that his family rarely watched TV together (in fact, his only recollection of this ever happening is when it happens accidently/forcefully while eating in a Chinese restaurant in Spokane). What solidifies the allegorical read of the aunt is the sentence that comes after the quote above; “Some relatives are meant to be imagined years before or after they died,” (14). There is no clear way to interpret this statement except to accept that the narrator is making the intangible, tangible. His aunt/the TV—or more accurately, his aunt/the act of watching the TV while being stuck somewhere between Chinese and American—is the real subject of this book.
And to be sure, Lin captures some really poignant things about the interaction between bridging one’s immigrant culture with the passive/not-so-passive act of philosophizing in front of the TV:
For an immigrant like my aunt, America is not the images on TV, it basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it with paper doilies, vanilla incense sticks and stuffed Garfields. This is also why my aunt thinks all TV, even live TV, is canned, and why she thinks America is basically not a place or even an image, but furniture. (19-20)
Without explaining too much of the book to you, Lin’s philosophizing is beautiful and compelling. Reading this book is similar to the way the narrator describes the way he watches TV, “involuntary and achronological, a kind of anthropological dumb show,” where one simultaneously half-watches segments of “old westerns… late night shows and Jackie Gleason re-runs,” (16). And in this way, Lin allows himself to a-chronologically play with philosophical ideas of interpretation, representation, and order, instead of tinkering with crafting a story.
It’s the mental landscape Lin creates that is most interesting and surprising about this book. It’s what kept me reading, and it’s what makes me want to start a furious search for more books that operate the way this one does.
I doesn’t happen often, finding a book that forever changes how you read; but Insomnia and the Aunt is a permanent marker in the road of my reading (and writing) journey, one that has cracked open for me possibilities and expectations for books that I didn’t realize could exist; this is what I find most exciting.
Other great moments from Insomnia and the Aunt:
‘When will the gazelle die?’ I ask my aunt.
My aunt has trouble understanding when something is dying on TV and when something is dead in real life and that already dead is not the same thing as the fiction of watching it on TV. ‘They won’t show that on TV.’
‘Gazelle. Already dead,’ my aunt says. She adds, ‘not already dying.’ (16)
“If live TV is disturbingly real, canned TV for my aunt is a function of reincarnation, or maybe morphology, at once vague, casual and novelistic. (20)
…a child from Kansas City who can imitate the sounds of strange animals like bush hogs or California condors defeats conversation before it starts—and this of course, is what creates that beautiful thing known as talking, (36).