Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Middle of the Night by HC Hsu
Middle of the Night
by HC Hsu
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
HC Hsu’s essay work, Middle of the Night, is part of what might be called Asian American experimental literature, that combines elements pertaining to the migrant experience with avant-garde forms and styles of writing, such as prose poetry, without subsuming the one under the other. As Dorothy Wang argues in her book Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2014), the error would be to “read the experimental as experiential” (164) and hence fall back into the content-oriented approach that consecrated canonical Asian (American) diasporic literary fiction such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. To start with, Middle of the Night employs the essay form, a “minor” literary genre working at the crossroads between fiction and non-fiction, the anecdotic/personal and metaphysical/universal. The book’s plasticity — its hybridity — seems to befit Hsu’s overall purpose, viz. to narrate one’s individual musings from sunset (18:03) till sunrise (05:25). So the book is not divided into chapters but into slices of time, rather, reflecting Hsu’s concern with the minutiae of existence. Hsu’s attempt at jotting down those little epiphanies, fleeting moments, small joys and silent pains that fill up our lives, is like a photographer’s effort to capture a pose’s pause. The vanity of such an endeavour is, paradoxically, what makes the reading of Middle of the Night a deeply moving experience. It reminded of a movie scene from the American drama The Hours (2002), partly based on Virginia Woolf’s life, in which Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) has to listen to her former lover and dying friend Richard (Ed Harris): “I wanted to write it all. Everything that happens in a moment. The way the flowers look when you carry them in your arms. This towel – how it smells, how it feels … its thread. All our feelings – yours and mine. The history of it. Who we once were. Everything in the world. Everything mixed up. Like it’s all mixed up now. And I failed.”
Failure at embracing an all-encompassing truth, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida intimates in his work, is in fact constitutive of the deconstructive process. Things move slowly in Hsu’s book, if they move at all, just as thought sometimes works, running in circles, or the way memory functions, through fragments that do not always match up; yet at the same time, everything vibrates in it with the shrill of intent. Hsu’s highly dense, (in)tense prose aggregates clauses or word clusters that, to paraphrase the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha in his seminal text The Location of Culture, “add to” but “need not add up” (1994, 155). Hsu’s descriptive insight and eye for details seen from a multiplicity of takes, through close-ups or low-angle shots, confers on his writing a cinematic quality that appears suited to his Romantic task of reviewing the world from a fresh perspective. As he states: “To find the miraculous in the ordinary, in the spectrum of the in-between, I think, is my ‘homework’” (108). For Hsu, the object of writing itself stands for this in-between miracle (miraculous in being precarious) whereby reader and author meet across space and time. To paraphrase Bhabha again, writing then consists in the task of measuring “how newness enters the world” out of this three-dimensional (con)fusion of souls between reader, author, and text. Three images in particular from Hsu’s story fragments have retained my retinae’s attention here.
The first image is from a TV documentary aired in the middle of the night, when insomnia makes you watch anything, like soap operas, reality shows or animal documentaries. Here, Nature’s little wonders take the form of a one-thousand-pound man being airlifted in his bed to the nearest hospital for gastric surgery. Reminiscent of an angel, is the surreal vision of this anonymous man’s ascent into the sky, as if touched by grace, bed sheets flying around his naked body, and with the transfixed crowd cheering down below. Seeing him on TV, his former girlfriend, having left him because of his obesity, decides to nurse the man back to life, “because, she said, she sensed in him ‘so much pain and suffering’” (84). Through this unusual mismatch that reminded me of a Carson McCullers love relationship in her short story collection The Ballad of the Sad Café, the two of them do not so much complement (add up) as second (add to) each other, finding a supplément d’âme (solace to the soul) to their human predicament and deep sense of loneliness. The second image functions along a vertical axis, too, but deals with falling instead, bringing to mind Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man on the aftermaths of 9/11. A female office worker accidentally raises her head from her desk towards the window of her office tower for a fraction of a second and sees the V shape of a woman silently falling down outside, her black hair floating around. These two parallel individual, self-centred lives briefly intersect, yet cannot feel more removed from each other at the same time. Insulated within the illusory safety of the air-conditioned, soundproof building, the office worker “couldn’t hear anything, or make out what was happening. Just point and trajectories” (96). Falling here entails the dissolution of matter into form, and vice-versa, like the raindrops that come falling onto Hsu’s window in the middle of the night in Central Texas, making time liquid.
The third image is from a movie scene in Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, in which a man spies upon a woman from across his apartment unit. The woman is standing by the “open, large rectangular window” (100) of her own apartment, pretending to be having a romantic dinner with her lover, kept hidden from view by a wall, “when, in fact, she’s alone” (101). The man and woman’s eyes never meet, wrapped as they are in their respective solipsistic, Hopperesque solitude. There is often a tension in Hopper’s paintings between the interior and the outside, as there is here, for although exposed to the man’s binoculars and to the film viewer’s gaze, the woman remains oblivious to her surroundings, as if “putting on a show, just for herself” (101). Hsu is a cinephile, and quite a number of his anecdotes are movie reviews of films he remembered watching. Is this because cinema, as a visual art, offers the kind of rear view window and perspectival insight that Hsu, as a diasporic writer, is particularly fond of? Hsu grew up in Yonghe in the northern part of Taiwan before moving to America with his family in the early 90s. Both of his parents have connections through relatives with Mainland China. Hsu recollects his first trip, flying from America, to his father’s home in Pingdu, situated in the northeastern province of Shandong, aged eight. There he learns about the unfathomableness of “ancestral”, family, communal times, meeting with unknown relatives and “generic” (78) Asian old ladies whom he would probably never meet again, yet who are at the same time implacably, absurdly, connected to him by blood. The arbitrariness of diasporic belonging to the transcendental signifier of China is for Hsu further compounded by his father’s complicated relationship with the “Middle Kingdom”, which the latter fled as a child, crossing the Formosa (Taiwan) Strait partly by swimming. For Hsu, China remains, like the middle of the night or the disjointed nature of human relationships, a foreign haunt to which he however keeps returning. His childhood memories of China are in particular associated with his grandmother’s funerals and with the event of having to witness his father’s near-death seizure: “My father later said, that night, he had a dream that my grandmother came to our hotel room, and asked him if he wanted to go on a trip abroad, with her” (80).
To conclude this review, I must admit Hsu’s meta-fictional comments on literary reviews made me rethink the role and function of this “minor” genre. According to Hsu, book reviews often amount to highly subjective and personal scribbling in the margin that is more indicative of the reviewer’s own worldview than it says something about the author, the book being reviewed, or its potential readers. Isn’t it, however, what writing, all writing that is, is about, and what Hsu’s adoption of the essay work form hints at in particular? Hsu argues that writing is altruistic (having in mind the absent reader), while reaffirming the primacy of life over art, which will appeal to carpe diem amateurs and art dilettantes alike. In effect, readers of Middle of the Night should not expect an underlying or overarching theme running through the book, as Hsu does not write for anyone or about anything specifically, his Asian American-ness (and homosexuality) being ultimately of “marginal” concern to him. Hsu is a process artist, that is to say that his primary concern, like the German dance choreographer Pina Bausch or the American photographer David Armstrong, to both of whom he devotes a “time slice”, is “neither of this world, nor of another, neither in the moment that’s past, nor in the one to come, but, in the space and time that is lost, between them” (73). Another scene-image from Hsu’s essay work resonates with me here, that illustrates the supplementary, intra-subjective and partial (ad)equation of re-views (“yourself plus the world minus me” as Hsu puts it), and the way re-views can also, by definition, provide new ways of seeing. An undefined, non-gendered, first person narrator sits in the public transports of a non-situated city, unbeknownst to his/her lover, who coincidently sits two rows in front. Instead of joining him/her, the narrator remains in his/her seat, preferring to watch his/her lover’s back. In doing so, the narrator realises how in their respective, self-immersed anonymity, s/he has never felt so close to connecting with his/her lover: “It occurs to me I had never up until then, seen you. In your completeness. In your solitude. I wonder what you are like without me. Yourself plus the world minus me. It’s a strange feeling, but I feel a lightness and clarity. A bright whiteness shines through me. I can see an outline of myself” (113-4).
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).