Watering Heaven and the Role of Magical Realism. A Review and Other Things.

As much as I’m excited to review books, I don’t often find it a pressing priority to publish my views. Rather, I would like to sit and wait, for those views which have been mere initial impressions, could evolve into an understanding best compromised between me and the book. But I found it hard to keep my sentiments secret after reading Watering Heaven- Peter Tieryas Liu’s first debut, which has apparently inspired a number of astounded readers to epic verses: “Exuberant.Wildly inventive.Grungy with global resonance for the 21st century.This debut collection of fiction rides bareback over the metaphysical divide of Asia and the USA. An astonishing energy prevails. This is definitely a writer to watch.” As a reader of magical realism, I felt betrayed by these very words. Putting the book down, I couldn’t help but find myself sinking in the bitter knots of disappointment. In an insurmountable rage, I made the mistake of registering my somewhat irrational emotions on the public site of Goodreads and the review itself was filled with irritation and anger.

In retrospect, I wasn’t proud of my words, but Peter replied to me, just like he did with the rest of the comments. He courteously apologized that the book did not work for me and asked a polite question about a detail in my review. Unfortunately, that made me feel subdued a little.  Among the astonishingly, overwhelmingly positive reviews of his book, mine was the only one-star rating; surely it felt hard and confronted already being the outlier. Part of me wondered how this book worked for anyone but me (the most negative review that was detailed enough was from a woman who admitted she was given the book in exchange for a review, who also very gently confessed it didn’t work for her and gave the author a neutral three-star), the other part in me battled with the doubt that my own deficiency had left out perhaps some of the quintessence of the book. But all the more, I was embarrassed about the crudeness of my hastily-crafted words as such manner is very unfit and undeserving of my original aspiration of later becoming a writer.

Manners aside, I still feel now that I am entitled to a moment of rage. Magical realism is my favorite sub-genre. Because of the many flawlessly creative novels and writings I have read,  a bar has been set that has forever marked my own standard regarding the genre’s unique literary characteristics. Of course the specificity of my standard and values changes as I grow, the source of my frustration has more to do with the fact that the genre itself besieges a special place in my heart. On a more personal level, novels with surrealistic elements remind me of the many things in my memories that don’t feel real or make sense, things that nonetheless fit into the realm of my experiences the way they couldn’t otherwise, no matter how untrue they seem in the stark light of the factual present. Reading magically realized writings, the purest joy has been to understand the absurdity of what is observed and noted; that is to suffer, for a moment, the disorientation and emptiness of the happenings in the world of the novel, and then with all values enmeshed in one’s being, all memories one can possibly summon to make sense of such nonsensical. I guess I have been so obsessed with this delightful process that it feels personally violated as Watering Heaven turns out to be absent of these experiences.

On a less personal level, it’s a pity the writing in Watering Heaven deprives readers like me of such an experience, when it has all the potential to plant and nourish it. The stories are crazily inventive to begin with, but nothing else. If this is authorial reticence, it has been stretched to the point of authorial abandonment. The author though supposedly withholds his logical explanation of fantastical details, restrains altogether the level of specificity and deliberation a narrative- any narrative-deserves. Perhaps it is because the stories are far too short and there aren’t enough room for much sensitivity but in the end the impact of the magical elements has been mistargeted because of this roughness, this lack of deliberation; in fact, the writing is purely bad narrative without these elements. The strange settings and surreal details are smartly invented  but soon left unexplored, since they aren’t (and can’t be) supported by the drafty and sometimes forceful turns of events in the stories. This collection reminds me of a supposedly awesome movie in 2010 called Inception, which also begins with a fabulous idea and innovative notions about the nature of dream and reality and such, but ends in a series of suck-y, meaningless killing, cliche’ American action scenes with a corny dialogue dropped every now and then about “dream” and “reality” to remind the audience of its awesomeness and inventiveness. That being said, though I still feel bad about how my words behave sometimes, I’m not regretting of how I feel about Watering Heaven.

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