cover image The Man with the Compound Eyes

The Man with the Compound Eyes

Wu Ming-Yi, trans. from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk. Pantheon, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-90796-7

“There was often a fine line between proverbial wisdom and stating the obvious, between a truth and a truism.” So thinks Alice Shih, the downbeat central character in Taiwanese author Ming-Yi’s thinly plotted U.S. debut (he has previously published several novels in Taiwan). Alice’s idea inadvertently describes a critical problem with the craft on display in the book itself. Ming-Yi offers an undercooked mélange of lazy magical realism (“[the] sperm whales into which the spirits transformed during the day were pretty much the same as actual sperm whales”) and shallow melodramatics among a cast of flat characters, such as golden-hearted Dahu and Hafay. The narrative oscillates between the travails of Alice, a grieving mother and widow succumbing to despair on the eastern coast of Taiwan, and Atile’i, an exiled youth from the fantastical Wayo Wayoan tribe who winds up marooned on an ephemeral mass in the Pacific Ocean. Ming-Yi attempts to unify these convergent narrative threads with the overarching theme of mounting ecological disaster, as an overdeveloped Taiwan is eaten by the ocean and a massive trash vortex threatens island communities, but this idea does not extend beyond the simple notion that humans are not living in harmony with nature. (May)