A forty-something writer returns to his rural hometown in Taiwan, after his release from a three-year prison sentence for killing his German husband. His homecoming coincides with the region’s annual Ghost Festival, when hell’s gate opens and villagers burn envelopes of money as offerings to the dead. In his afterward, the author says he always wanted to write a ghost story, and with Ghost Town, he indeed achieves an eerie atmosphere of spiritual possibilities, particularly through the telling of folk traditions such as hanged cats in bamboo groves. But more so, his characters are haunted by real world horrors, and it’s a family saga rather than a paranormal encounter.
One finds often that literary fiction takes inspiration from the author’s life experiences. In that, Chen’s work is transparent. Like the author, the main character Keith is a Taiwanese writer who emigrated to Germany. He even has the same family name, and “Keith” is not a far cry from Kevin. I mention this to say that Chen’s novel is a very personal story about Taiwanese families and their troubles. Only the author can say how much of the material came from his family and childhood, but his book has that daring quality of good autobiography, letting the reader in on something deeply personal.
The main plot is Keith’s relationship with a troubled street performer in Berlin, who he only refers to as T, Keith imagines describing his hometown to his deceased partner, and gradually, memories of T’s mental breakdown surface, culminating in the night of terror that led to Keith’s incarceration. Woven into that drama are stories from the points-of-view of his mother, sisters, and other supporting characters, some of which relate to Keith and some do not (at least directly).
I struggled early on with the question of whether this is a novel or a collection of short stories, closely connected thematically? By the end, one sees Chen’s purposes. He glues together collective family memories and individual journeys to construct Keith’s story, as an artist creates a collage, and it requires standing back from the work to recognize the greater whole. Each “piece” or story is so striking, it demands the reader’s focus and thereby challenges one to pause and consider what one is seeing in its entirety.
Keith is the youngest child in the Chen family and born at a time when Taiwan was transforming from a cash-crop economy into the manufacturing powerhouse it has come to be known. To stay with the collage comparison, imagery of Keith’s hometown of Yongjing fills the gaps and borders of his narrative canvas with a melancholy mixture of moods and textures: irrigation ditches with dead dogs that overflow into the streets during seasonal rains; concrete townhouses overtaking the lush countryside; ripened,
bright orange betel nuts being harvested for sale; an abandoned soy sauce factory that was once the town’s main employer; walls placarded with faded campaign posters of disgraced politicians; and an ancient temple to the Lady at the Foot of the Wall that served as both a slaughterhouse and a nightly cinema in Keith’s youth. Many will relate to Keith’s sense of dissonance upon returning to one’s hometown, but I would venture to say that few of those locales contain such complexity and contradictions, owing to past Chinese and Japanese colonialism, steadfast folk beliefs, decades of authoritarian government, and rapid economic development that turned many farm-based workers into get-rich-quick entrepreneurs, sometimes through corrupt schemes.
Keith’s father Cliff aspired to be an entrepreneur, but he was more unsuccessful than not. He and Keith’s mother Cicada had five girls before his older brother Heath came along, an unlucky circumstance in Taiwanese families of the time. Girls were a family burden, only good when they married well, and not worth sending to school. Chen subverts that narrative by having each sister tell her story. Their chapters captivate with wit and heartbreak and leave the reader curious about the possibility of breaking off into novels of their own.
The eldest sister Beverly marries a hapless schemer, not unlike her father, and, not unlike her mother, she takes on the role of keeping a broken family together in spite of her miserable marriage. The next, Betty, becomes a government clerk and is embroiled in a trend of our times: a cruel, social media prank that ruins her reputation. Belinda, the favored daughter, marries a handsome TV anchor who provides an enviable lifestyle at the price of degradation and abuse. Barbie marries the son of the town’s prominent Wang family, but they’re a loveless couple, and Barbie descends into madness, locking herself in one room of their mansion and living as a packrat. Each woman searches for a way to privately rebel against a society that offers spare opportunity to make their own choices. Plenty, the youngest, does so openly, mutilating her body with a razor. Betty sneaks off to a motel to watch gay porn videos, inspired by her brother’s fearless way of living. Their mother, a harsh and domineering presence, has secrets of her own that allow her to achieve a measure of autonomy.
Keith’s ability to be himself was thwarted, too. In secondary school, he was discovered fooling around with an older boy and faced ridicule and violence from his teachers, classmates, and his mother. His gift for writing leads to an eventual escape, and after some success in Taiwan, he grabs an offer for a fellowship in Germany.
There, he finds love and marriage with the mysterious T, but their relationship turns nightmarish and leaves Keith on his own to rebuild his life in a town that reviles him even more than when he left. Chen creates quite a dark collage for Keith, and it’s not a tale that ends with hopeful resolution for him or his sisters. Though perhaps through
their refusal to give up in spite of what society thinks of them, Chen suggests that a bartered life is better than the alternative.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters