More thrills based in a Taipei night market

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Incensed (2016, Taiwanese-American Ed Lin’s second novel Ghost Month was the first) centered on Taiwanese UCLA dropout Jing-Nan (has many aspects that are mysterious to the owner of a Night Market sausage and skewered-entrails stand. Jing-Nan’s proprietor persona, the tout “Johnny,” is less shy than the orphaned Taiwanese 25-year-old Jing-Nan, and uses his fluency in English to draw American tourists to his stand.

It is an especially family-focused time of year (the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), and Jinh-Nan is called upon by his Taichung gangster uncle, Big Eye, to watch over Big Eye’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Big Eye wants her to finish high school. Jing-Nan wants to be a singer (though both her father and her older cousin don’t think she has any talent).

There is an Indonesian she has broken up with and whom her father abhors on principle (xenophobic principles) and wants to ensure is distanced from his daughter. There is the Taipei primo capo (to borrow an Italian Mafia term) from whom Big Eye has won a lot of money gambling. There are Big Eye’s fierce and fiercely loyal bodyguards, and a similar formidable pair of employees Hing-Nan has inherited along with the market business. One of them, Dwayne, is Ami (one of the aboriginal Polynesian peoples) and the book illustrates inter-ethnic animosities (aboriginal peoples against Chinese who arrived from the 17th through the 20th century, Holo-speakers (Taiwanese), Hakka, the predatory defeated Kuomintang who fled defeat on the mainland after WWII, and the swarms of tourists from the PRC) as well as explaining (with a light touch) the multitude of gods and goddesses Taiwanese attempt to get to aid, or at least not to obstruct their endeavors. Not just temples and the night market, but other parts of Taipei geography are also revealed, with a major lynchpin of the plot occurring on the relatively new (since 2007) Maokong string of gondolas above Taipei.

Although there are two murders, the novel is not at all a whodunit. There are many surprises for Jing-Nan, who is alarmed at the responsibility for a wild 16-year-old forced on him by a ruthless gangster. There is a lot of humor, not least about celebrity. Jing-Nan is a minor celebrity for having deflected a bullet with his main cooking pot (back in Ghost Month). And the novel begins with a droll account of a contest to eat especially rank stinking tofu between a Japanese and a Taiwanese who alternate winning contests wolfing down food. They put their minor celebrity to work at a rally in the night market for a protest rally involving Jing-Nan’s activist girlfriend Nancy (politicized since Ghost Month).

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I think the book is just a bit too long. There are too many punk-rock (and post-punk) references for me (especially the Joy Division obsession), but I enjoyed the voice of the young somewhat Americanized Taiwanese narrator and the atmosphere of scrambling to succeed in Taipei.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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