A contact lens dipped in tea stands in for Proust’s mnemonic madeleine in this agreeably deranged first novel, by a young California critic and teacher of film technique.
That association leaps naturally to mind as we follow the serpentine peregrinations of Cheng-Ming, a Chinese-American student living in Taipei, whose interest in the “world” of ghosts and spirits unsettles his own psyche just as a typhoon is approaching Taipei. Declaring himself a “scholar of the strange,” Cheng-Ming, who resides in a supposedly haunted apartment building, begins his own informal investigation into the case of “K,” a notorious rapist-murderer who airily eludes and teases the police (and who, the reader begins to suspect, may be the importunate Cheng-Ming’s criminal alter ego). Complications quickly multiply, in an R-rated Through the Looking Glass that involves Lu’s adventurous protagonist with an adipose “amateur documentarian” who may or may not be seeing things himself, the fortune-teller who performs the abovementioned ablution with Cheng-Ming’s contact, a forgotten filmmaker, a reclusive painter, and a clinically depressed medium, among others. Meanwhile, house pets mysteriously disappear and snakes slither through city streets, K’s body count piles up, and our hero narrowly escapes becoming the groom in a shotgun “spirit-marriage.” It seems churlish to insist on knowing what all this paranoiac splendor adds up to, but there are probably clues in a Buddhist parable about a cannibalistic ghost that appears to teach “that identity is an illusion.” It’s certainly an impudent parody of noir fiction, and perhaps also an allegorical swipe at a culture whose fervent traditionalism also accommodates healthy doses of superstition (“Because we live here, drowning in these myths, we attribute everything to spirits”).
More than a little precious, but quite likably stylish and amusing. And—not that this wouldn’t have already occurred to Alvin Lu—it might make a rather good movie.