Like TV, Tan Lin’s insomniaandtheaunt won’t look you in the eyes as it tells the truth, and will stare at you as it lies. As the book’s unbalancing paradoxes teach you to look askance at the images media mirrors back to us, the hulking figure of your own loneliness and desire looms nearby.
A biography of constructivism, insomnia rejects its genre conventions; the narrator refuses the idea of a private life, and methodically substitutes personal details of his aunt’s life with accounts of the late-night television programming he and his aunt watched together. Lin sporadically tunes into the staticky nodes of the aunt’s life: she was half-English, half-Chinese, presumably from southeastern China. She immigrated to Spokane, Washington, where she and her husband owned a Chinese restaurant. Tired of serving American Chinese food, the couple, “Bing” and “Betty,” moved to Concrete (the irony thuds as a wrecking ball), where they purchased a motel. In China, Betty had been a chemist and physician, and America and its television programming gave her a new life. In their motel, she and her husband slept in different rooms; they adopted a Taiwanese boy who abandoned them when he turned seventeen; the aunt was an insomniac, she may or may not have been the narrator’s aunt by blood, and she died of pancreatic cancer.
But Lin conditions us to empty out these (often vague) loci with every flip of the channel—Gilligan’s Island, Kennedy on MTV, Craig Kilborn, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Star Trek, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The central drama is America’s dreams’ media. The nephew’s story of his aunt is not the myth of the industrious immigrant’s rise to success; it is a bathetic history of the process by which nightly TV-watching filled his aunt with meaning, American-ness. This ritual, complete with incantation (the repeated speech of re-runs and talk show hosts’ verbatim repetitions of their guests’ words), turns viewers (not unwillingly) into psychic mediums for canned souls. TV educates its audience in a kind of method acting, whereby viewers become a character by mimicking behavior linked to an inner life; believing from the outside in, lying till it becomes believable. TV also encourages an amnesia that cancels out any minority position: “If the world is white, then color is a form of redundancy.” Consequently, his aunt “has very few memories of violence or even racism in America,” even though she, the narrator, and his parents have encountered racism. Paradox is inherent to self-identification: self-denial is intrinsic to the formation of selfhood, especially from a minority point of view.
The nephew’s meditation also reveals the ways in which this watching (both of his aunt and the television) conferred meaning to him. The television is a distant and distancing vision that allows them to triangulate their thoughts, feelings, and eye contact. They become relations by outsourcing their emotions. With this in mind, it’s important to emphasize that, while Lin isn’t uncritical of the narrowness of representation on TV and the sublimation that the medium makes possible, he doesn’t only cast TV as a mind control device in the hands of a hegemonic group. Viewers believe too readily for this to be the lone truth; they believe so readily it seems they’ve imagined the programs themselves. Television, Lin implies, isn’t just a delivery system: it’s reflexive, a collective imagination, asexual reproduction, Adam and Eve in our image.
The center of gravity in the work is a nephew’s recollection of his dead aunt’s life, its end and its reincarnations (in photographs, postcards, his family’s memory, and the communal memory of TV). Drawn to the mass at center are considerations of what it means for an immigrant and her relations to become or be American in the television age. Through and around these thoughts, float, buzz, flicker questions about our ultimate relation to each other and, concomitantly, to ourselves. When mass media so completely mediates our experience, can’t it be said this media casts a magic spell on us that makes us intelligible, coheres us into couples, families, the units of society? Can the events of our lives be said to have meaning without a group delusion that sublimates individuality? Lin walks to the edge of a sheer drop and imagines what it would be like to jump.
And peering down with him, we recall the aunt. The two pennies that continually clang as this washing machine runs are the deaths of the narrator’s aunt and father (whose death is mentioned throughout as a refrain). The light shifts, and the chasm ahead suddenly looks to be the ache of remembering then forgetting the dead.