Book Review: ‘Zero and Other Fictions’ by Huang Fan

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Short stories and novellas are in a weird grey area for me. I love the idea of them, but at the same time, there aren’t many that I find myself fully engaging with. It is with this bizarre love-hate relationship that I have that I read Zero and Other Fictions, a collection of three short stories and a 100-page novella by acclaimed Taiwanese writer Huang Fan.

Not many people have heard of Huang, but he is no doubt a big deal in Taiwan’s literary circles, having won just about every major literary prize the country has to offer. Zero and other Fictions is the first collection of his work to appear in English, and it is translated and edited by award-winning translator John Balcom.

This is a fascinating anthology because it is so varied in its subject matter and styles. If the idea was to show off Huang’s versatility and the range of his imagination, this collection certainly achieves that.

The first story, “Lai Suo”, which propelled Huang to the forefront ofTaiwan’s literary scene in 1979, is a subtle and sometimes confusing story about a naïve man who becomes an unwitting pawn of Taiwanese politics. Spanning a period from the Japanese colonial era to the late 1980s, the story jumps back and forth effortlessly through time in a stream-of-consciousness style. It is the type of story that allows the reader to appreciate Huang’s literary genius but many not connect with it unless they have a bit of an idea about Taiwanese history and its political environment through the years.

The second story, “The Intelligent Man”, provides a stark contrast. It is a light-hearted satire about a Taiwanese businessman who moves to the US but through his business travels frequently back toAsia– where he has developed a habit of keeping a mistress in every port. It’s actually not an outlandish concept because I know for a fact that it is rather common.

The third story, “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”, is a bizarre metafictional tale of the narrator’s childhood in a rapidly urbanisingTaipei. This one had me scratching my head more than once because I had no idea what it was getting at until the very end, and I believe that was Huang’s intention. It’s an experimental piece, well-written, sure, but probably the least enjoyable of the collection.

The fourth and final story is “Zero”, which takes up about two-thirds of the book’s pages. It is the first work of science fiction to win a major literary award inTaiwan, and considering that it was written in the 1980s, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. “Zero” depicts an Orwellian future, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where nearly every significant human decision – from jobs to holiday destinations – is made by higher powers. Conformity is not an option – it is mandatory and an accepted philosophy. It is with this backdrop that the story’s protagonist, Xi De, an independent thinker, begins to ponder whether this totalitarian world is all there is to know.

One hundred pages is an uncomfortable length for a piece of adult fiction. It’s too long for a short story and in this case, one gets the feeling that Huang could have easily made it a novel three or four times as long, but chose not to. As a result, I found Zero engaging, certainly the most engaging piece of the four, but still strangely lacking in the end. Also, having seen so many sci-fi movies over the years, it wasn’t easy getting excited about a world which is not too dissimilar – I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written nearly three decades ago.

All of Huang’s stories have political and societal undertones which will resonate more with people who have background knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written. Every story in this collection, especially “Lai Suo”, demands multiple readings to fully appreciate the power of Huang’s writing. However, I still think my lack of genuine understanding of Taiwan’s political history has made me lose something from the experience. Balcom’s translations, as elegant as they are, probably also failed to convey the full force of the writings in their original Chinese. The result is a sometimes enjoyable but also frequently frustrating read that I wished could have been better.

3 out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Boat’ by Nam Le

June 21, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Award-winning writer Nam Le is kind of a hero to me.  Refugee parents from Vietnam, grew up in Australia, became a lawyer, hated it, quit, then pursued a life of writing.  Studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published his first book, The Boat, a collection of short stories.  Won a zillion awards for it including the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year.

Single-author short story collections are almost extinct these days (and with good reason — it seems most readers prefer their books to tell a big story, or even part of a massive story, and reading different stories in the same voice from the same writer can potentially become tedious).  That’s why The Boat is such a phenomenal achievement.  The stories are so varied in scope and depth, characters and location, and yet are capable of being so honest, painful, beautiful and haunting — it’s a powerful collection from a confident, crafty writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Boat contains seven short stories, each ranging from around 25-50 pages in length.  They take us all around the world, to places like Iowa, Colombia  Vietnam, Tehran, Hiroshima, New York, Australia.  They are all literary pieces that exhibit fine craftsmanship and stunning imagery (not surprising considering Le started out in poetry), so they won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.  Even though they are short, some of them can be considered as slow-paced, the type of story you need to take in slowly and savour, bit by bit, and maybe re-read once you’re done.

I enjoyed reading The Boat as a book, but as is the case with most short story collections, I preferred some stories more than others.  For me, the best stories were at the beginning and end.  The first one, entitled Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, is a powerful story about a strained relationship between father and son.  The last one, The Boat, is about a young girl’s journey on a refugee boat and the bond she forms with a small boy.  These two were my favourites.  Was it a coincidence that both of them were heavily linked to Le’s Vietnamese background?  I don’t know, but I found them the most honest, the most engaging.  Does that mean the other stories about cultures Le might not be as familiar with weren’t as good?  Maybe.  I’ll leave that to the individual reader to decide, but to me it is amazing that he even attempted to write about things that ought to be completely foreign to him.  I only wish I could develop that kind of self-assuredness someday.

You don’t see many short story collections getting published these days, but The Boat is the kind of book that made me wish there were more of them.

4 out of 5

It’s coming along nicely (my book)

May 9, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study

So I met up with my supervisor again recently, and the feedback was good.  Much better than I had anticipated.

To be honest, it was a bit of a lazy effort on my part — not in all the sleepless nights I had trying to think of different ways to approach the writing and the countless hours I spent piecing it all together — but rather, in terms of the actual amount of time I spent writing and editing.

After our first meeting, I dumped what was supposed to be the first chapter and started again.  Looking back at it now, it was the right decision because it wasn’t what I wanted to write.  It didn’t matter if it was any good.  What mattered was that it wasn’t the type of book I intended.  So out it went and I started over.

This time, I just typed down whatever came to me.  It was easy and I sped through it.  I think it was as close to ‘free writing’ as I’ve come in a long time.  It’s been a really long time, considering free writing was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog like two years ago, and I haven’t done much of it since.  I just belted out the story without worrying about form or structure, deciding that I was not going to worry about it now and will fix everything up later.  The only bit I put a bit more effort into was chapter one, but even that was a pretty casual effort.

As it turned out, it was the best thing I could have done.  The result was a little raw, somewhat rough around the edges, but it was the type of book I wanted to write.  Finally, I was getting close to discovering the right voice.  And my supervisor was happy with how it was progressing.  Joy.

It’s going to be a busy few weeks coming up.  I still have to finish a couple of books I borrowed from the library, plus another book I bought from the Book Depository — all three will supposedly help me with finding my stylistic mojo.  I have a book launch to attend at an upcoming writers’ festival (And yes, it’s MY book!  Well, mine and a bunch of other people’s, but it’s still MINE!), and most of all, I need to do a lot more writing with the project deadline coming up in a little over a month.

The next step is to write a bit more (I have a few chapters lined up, actually), but because the project does not requre me to finish the entire book, I will have to do some serious rewriting shortly.  The key is to develop the humour so that’s punchier, more even and with less cheap shots (I have a tendency to go for the low blow) and craft each chapter so that it can stand on its own, almost like a short story.

A weird analogy here but I’m looking for inspiration in some of the shows that Larry David wrote, such as Seinfeld and Curb.  I’m in awe of David’s ability to create various strands in an episode and allowing them to intertwine before bringing them all together at the end and making the story go full circle.  That’s the type of legendary stuff I need to come up with.

PS: On another note, on one sleepless night I came up with a new idea for a book. It’s not a novel, but is a potentially lucrative idea.  Or so I reckon.

Pressure is a good thing

March 23, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study


I had a first meeting with my supervisor today for the major writing project I am to complete this semester.  Well, I probably won’t complete the whole thing, but the intention is to get at least 20,000 to 30,000 words done before June to put me in a position to actually finish it, with potential for publication down the track.

My supervisor is quite a well-known and critically successful author (though I assume not commercially successful enough to not have to teach).  That said, I was still very surprised and impressed by how many great suggestions he/she had for me.  Before leaving for Shanghai I had compiled a 1.5 page outline/proposal for my project, which he/she provided a little bit of feedback on.  Upon my return, I beefed it up to a comprehensive 4 page proposal.

Using that 4-pager, my supervisor was able to tell me which books and authors I should read, which shows and films I should see, what I should aim for and what I should steer clear from.  He/she also immediately grasped what I needed to concentrate on and the things I needed to turn these 4 pages of pretty rough ideas into a proper narrative that would capture audiences.  The advice was all spot on.  He/She hit everything right on the nail and set off multiple light bulbs in my head.  Don’t you love it when that happens?

Now, with the short China trip out of the way, it’s time to get down to business.  Our next meeting is in a couple of weeks and I need to have words for my supervisor to see.  I need to have words for my other class to workshop.  I need to finish my next magazine article (due for publication in June).  I have to find a publisher for one of the other articles I completed last year.  I have books I need to finish quickly because I have recommended books to read.  I have books and short stories to read for class.  I have pieces I need to read and workshop.  I have to submit an entry for a short story writing competition.  I have heaps of posts I need to catch up on.  I need to check on how my domain change is going (haven’t heard a peep for a month).  And while I am doing all of this, I need to keep an eye out for potential jobs, because I’ll be graduating in a few months.

Do I feel a bit of pressure?  Of course I do.  But strangely, I welcome it.  I’ve spent too long NOT having any pressure and it hasn’t been healthy for my motivations and ambitions.  Maybe that’s why certain authors can keep churning out books faster than printers even though they are already successful — because they have contracts that require them to write more books and adhere to deadlines.  Maybe that’s why first-time novelists take so bloody long to finish that first novel.  I feel like I need a bit of a push right now, since having no push hasn’t been doing it for me.

Come on!

So THAT’S what it feels like to write all day!

May 10, 2010 in On Writing, Study

What a killer of a day.

For the first time in a very long time, I managed to write all day, practically from 9 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, with only a couple of short breaks in between.

It wasn’t like I had much of a choice.  Today was the deadline for this writing competition that I wanted to enter.  I only found out about it last Wednesday, and the intention was to write the short story over the weekend, but as usual, I was only half way through by Sunday night.  The story needed to be between 1,000 and 3,000 words, but my target was roughly around 1,800 so that I could re-use the story for one of my workshopping sessions in a couple of weeks (and hand it in for assessment at the end of term).

And so I got cracking, and by the time I finished with the draft story at around 1 in the afternoon, it was 2,800 words.  If the story (tentatively titled “The Smell”) was the masterpiece I had been hoping for, then that would have been fine for the purposes of the competition entry.  But it wasn’t.  There was something about it that just didn’t feel right.

So I went back to work, rewriting, altering the plot, and chopping entire chunks out.  When I finally keyed in the final word, it was down to just over 2,000 words.  Good enough.  But then I realised it was 5pm, and as I recalled, the final mail run was around 5:30.  In a mad panic, I had to reformat the story into the correct parameters for the competition, complete the entry form, print out two copies (on an inkjet!), fill out the envelope and whack on the stamps.  I made it to the post box with 6 minutes to spare.

In retrospect, it was most probably a waste of money (because there was an entry fee) to enter this competition, because even I recognise that the story wasn’t very good or well written.  But I’m glad I did it.

For starters, I finally submitted something I wrote that wasn’t compulsory, and I even made the deadline!  Secondly, I experienced what it feels like to write for a full working day.  Honestly, it felt great.  It wasn’t easy, but it was extremely rewarding.  My only complaint is that the day went by way too fast.  I only really wrote around 2,000 words today (and deleted probably 1,000!), but hey, I got the job done in the end.

Okay, now back to uni work.  I’m really starting to shit bricks over how much stuff is going to be due soon!