The Hell Screens

The Hell Screens by Alvin LuAlvin Lu
Four Walls Eight Windows ($22)

by Peter Ritter

As a typhoon closes around the island of Taipei, hungry ghosts intermingle with the living, causing mischief and stealing souls with impunity. Meanwhile, a shape-shifting killer called K grips the island's already-fevered imagination. Is K real, or, like the comic-book stories of suicide and haunting that seem to be coming to life, a figment of mass delusion caused by the storm? Such is the mystery of Alvin Lu's luscious but perplexing debut novel, The Hell Screens, a noirish ghost story with too many ghosts and too little story.

Lu is a film critic and teacher, and his interest in cinematic technique and the subjectivity of the senses is much in evidence here. The novel's narrator, an amateur Chinese-American scholar of the supernatural, sees the spirit world through a contact lens, which, when soaked in tea, blurs and distorts his vision. His associate, a rotund amateur videographer who may or may not be the reincarnated spirit of a dissident film director, roams the halls of a haunted apartment building trying to capture the image of a female ghost. Throughout, glimpses of Taipei's glistening, crowded streets flash on the page like whispers on celluloid. "I saw myself no longer in contemporary Taipei, but in the ghost city on which it based itself, in its imagination, if cities dream down to the naming of streets. In some dark lit colonial gotham, the bodies of poets and spies floated, shot and dumped, through gutters and down rivers, while young women, smitten and deceived by the notion of romantic love, waited in hovels for their idealistic young men to return." Filtered through the novel's distorted lens, the city's subconscious landscape, formed by myth and populated by nightmares, becomes manifest.

Like its setting, the plot of The Hell Screens flows according to the discordant logic of a dream. Characters, both living and otherwise, flit through the narrative, guided by voices from beyond through the labyrinthine metropolis. Adding to the confusion, they metamorphose at random, becoming apparitions from manga one moment and flesh-and-blood people the next. A girl with a flower tattoo, for instance, appears variably as one of K's victims, an enigmatic medium, and the ghost of a suicide. Even the narrator becomes suspect; he may, in fact, be a figment of K's imagination. Lu drops clues throughout, including snippets of Buddhist philosophy about the illusory nature of the material world, which suggest that the novel's puzzles are, at heart, unsolvable. As in Kafka's stories—which, as the killer's name implies, seem to have inspired Lu—paranoia is the narrative catalyst. When nothing is as it appears, anything is possible.

Yet for all the richness of Lu's atmospherics, there is an absence at the center of The Hell Screens, as though the novel itself were nothing more than the feverish projections of an unquiet mind. Kafka's parables were, at least, grounded by their stylistic parody and subversive spirit; Lu's fantasia, bound by nothing, eventually drifts into a cul-de-sac of portentous signs, metaphysical musing, and overripe prose. Trying to follow the author on this head-trip, we're left feeling like Theseus lost in the labyrinth, with nary a narrative bread crumb to guide the way.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001