The Man with the Compound Eyes: A Novel Hardcover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
For me, there are three parts to making a good read: 1. Story, 2. Characters, 3. Style
Ming-Yi's story is, from a distance, not bad. An island is nearly laid to waste by a tsunami of trash. Various people are affected by this unnatural occurrence, including civilized folk along with various native people along a scale of civilization ranging from completely aboriginal to islander to white outsiders. A woman's son and husband go missing and are found dead. A native boy shows up (on a wave of trash) to take their place, somehow embodying them both for the woman while she recovers from the mourning process. Some outsiders show up to investigate the disaster and provide, perhaps, a different perspective on the events taking place. An odd spirit (compound eye man) hovers about the scene of the dead man and little boy, providing yet another strange and seemingly unnecessary viewpoint. The story almost gets to an apex, but fails to do so and then somewhat meanders to a very weak finish, filled with treacly emotive inner dialogues and poetry.
The characters are interesting, the protagonist is Alice, an Asian woman who loses her son and Norwegian husband, Thom, from a hiking accident. There's Atile'i, the native boy who accidentally floats toward and lands on the island via the trash vortex. Hafay, the coffee house/bar owner who seems to be the most solid character of all. Dahu, an island man whose wife abandon him and who has the hots for Alice. And then, there's yet two more, completely useless characters who add nothing to the story, Detlef and Sara, two eco-investigator types, outsiders who have come to the island to see what's happening. A few other minor characters fill in the blanks, and there's a lot of blanks. The last two characters above (and their back-story) are totally not necessary to the book at all. Filler at best.
The style is readable but slow and meandering. Almost all the characters are inside of their heads far too much. Inner dialogue is a constant. This book is riddled with flashbacks, something I'm never fond of and seems to be a irritatingly growing trend among novelists these days. There are many side tracks which deflect story and definitely do not help it move forward. Far too much singing and poetry that don't help the story at all. The one thing that Ming-Yi does well is descriptive prose, so he's got that going for him. And he does a good job of rendering a woman's thoughts realistically. However, this book is very difficult to get through and ends so weakly that this reader felt like there was no point to it. Seriously, I turned the last page and went "Meh" and tossed the book to the floor. I'd like to say that rarely happens, but it seems to be on the increase these days.
The book's title and the character from which it was derived are misleading and strange. It's as if Ming-Yi wants to eventually write sci-fi and thought it would be fun to throw in some kind of ghostly, insect-like man to visit his thoughts upon us while we're trying to decipher the rest of this tangled mess of a story. That addition is wholly unnecessary and a major distraction. It is also inserted in such a minor way that I can't figure out how it became the title! Just plain odd.
This is one of those books that has a few redeeming qualities that kept me afloat in a sea of trash. Perhaps that's the metaphor Ming-Yi is working toward, but this novel needs a major re-write and clean-up. I've read elsewhere that Ming-Yi is an environmentalist. Perhaps he can start his clean-up efforts with this manuscript. Three stars. Two taken away for meandering story line and over-treacly ending. I give it a weak recommendation at best.
Most of us lead what we consider simple lives. We look at the mundane activites of daily life - eating, sleeping, working - without consideration of how they affect, or are affected, by the world around us. Indeed, our quest for individuality seems to demand that we see ourselves as separate, living at the center our own little world.
"The Man with the Compound Eyes" is a novel of interconnectedness; where people, places, things, and even time periods come together, and "the finest movement of any organism represents a change in an ecosystem." Author Wu Ming-Yi takes us to a place where our mythic past of oral legends and wrathful gods meets our technological present of live news coverage and cell phones. There, on a beach in Taiwan, they must confront not only each other but the uncertain future as well, when the rising ocean dumps back all the trash people had dumped into it.
As if we have compound eyes, Wu Ming-YI allows us to see a single series of events from multiple perspectives; each intimately personal, yet remaining interrelated. Woven together with the threads of life, death, love, and loss, the characters in "The Man with the Compound Eyes" face their shared trials and individual travails. "Life doesn't allow you any preconceptions. Most of the time you have to accept what life throws at you, kind of like walking into a restaurant where the owner dictates what you're having for dinner."
Lyrical, mystical, yet ultimately real, "The Man with the Compound Eyes" is a subtly layered novel that shows us an intricate and multi-faceted world - the world we just happen to live in. An enjoyable read; the translation by Darryl Sterk is seamless. A welcome addition to my library, and highly recommended.
Professor Alice Shih’s Danish husband, Thom Jakobsen, a mountain climber, had taken their 10-year-old son Toto to the mountains. There was an accident and Thom was killed, but Toto was never found. She had wanted to be a writer, but was teaching at the university instead. She couldn’t live like this anymore; she resigned, and now she just wantd to die. But then the earthquake struck, and she needed to survive. Her house was by the sea and the rising ocean made her home dangerous to live in, but she was not leaving it in case Toto returned.
On an island, Wayo Wayo, far from Taiwan, the inhabitants never knew any other island existed. It was so small that residents could walk all the way around the island by lunchtime. On the island was a youth called Lau Kiyadimanu Atile’i. All the girls loved him, even the most beautiful girl on the island, Rasula. The custom was that the second son had to be sacrificed to the Sea Gods on his 15th birthday to ensure abundance for the family. He would be put to sea, never to return.
The tsunami waves save Atile’i. Instead of drifting out to sea, he was washed up in Taiwan, right into Alice’s place. Alice tries writing fiction again: she begins with the first sentence. Atile’i tries to understand his new home – he has never seen chairs, tables, or even pens before, and there are foods he doesn’t know, nor does he speak the same language as Alice. As they come to know and trust each other, Alice and Atile’i set out to the mountains to find her son Toto.
What happened to Detlef and his colleague in the cave during the earthquake? Does Alice, with her 15-year-old companion, find Toto? And who is the man with the compound eyes?
The novel is written primarily in the third person. When Atile’i and Alice connect, the novel changes, briefly, to the first person – both Atile’i and Alice become narrators. The stories of Detlef, the island boy, Alice, and the two men in her life – Thom and Toto – all have their own separate stories, each of them intertwined until the ending reveals the outcome. Beautifully written with exquisite imagery, it is a tale that keeps the reader intriqued throughout.
international map, with overseas editions appearing in
London, New York and Paris.
Note that the novel was very ably translated by National Taiwan
University professor Darryl Sterk, a longtime resident of
Taipei, and that the novel
is just as much about stag beetles, mountaineering,
love, sex, millet wine and whales" as it is about the lives of the
main characters in the book.
I compare Wu's novel to Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's
Wu's entrance into the Western publishing world is a singular
event, and while some have characterized the novel as speculative fiction in
the way that the best Margaret Atwood books are spec fic --
I call this novel cli fi, and part of a new genre of climate-themed literature. I live in Taiwan
and read the book three times already and each time a new novel was revealed. I see a movie here, later on,
perhaps directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, a la "Life of Pi." It's that good!