Insomnia and the Aunt by Tan Lin | Kenning Editions 2011 | $13.95

Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt glows neon yellow—like hilighters, French fries, hot mustard packets from Panda Express, or a Waffle House of scallion pancake-flavored commercial. In this remote control scrapbook Lin grieves the death of his estranged, mixed race aunt, who owned a motel in the middle of nowhere and watched a lot of TV. Tucked among postcards, a photograph of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee and footnoted Google reverse searches, Lin tries to extract ghosts from cached pages and remember his aunt’s eyes in the white noise and signal snow of “the Asian American immigrant experience,” which is really just America being watched on TV.

I have watched hundreds of movies with Asians and fake Asians in them, and the one thing that makes them all the same (except the white Asians) is that the Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen and you are never allowed to look too deeply into theirs. I think it is for this reason that whenever I think about my aunt, and TV for that matter, I can never remember my aunt’s eyes (they appear to belong to someone else), and think instead of Robert Redford, who said in an interview that it is necessary for the body to lie to the mind (not the other way around) when acting and that the various strata of lying are continually searching for each other in the wilderness that most people call the truth and that my aunt calls television (11).

Instead of working on this review, I decide to re-watch an episode of the (cancelled) TV series Dark Angel. I think about Jessica Alba in Seattle (driving a motorcycle, and how I always thought she was half-Filipina) and Tan Lin in Seattle (driving 87 miles to see his half-Chinese, half-white aunt), and as I compulsively watch episode after episode on the internet I begin to understand what Lin already knows. Like an addiction, serial television—with its timed commercial breaks, its catchy theme songs, its over-rehearsed staging of the spur-of-the-moment—feeds us with its promise of repetition and allows us to watch from a distance. On TV, sexual tension is always prolonged and people never say what they really mean. When we’re watching, it’s easy to avert our eyes, to lie. Television channels feelings and vends emotions. This is why the corner convenience store sells potato chips and ice cream for one or two dollars more than other places. Thinking about one particular television-consumed immigrant relative of my own makes it difficult to write about this book. Continue reading “Review: Tan Lin’s INSOMNIA AND THE AUNT”