It would be a mistake to state outright any kind of thumbs up or down regarding Insomnia and the Aunt because that would mean there’s something there to judge, and while I’m not suggesting that the book is empty, I’m arguing that the book lives up to its promise billing itself as an “ambient novel.” Both words in that phrase are tricky when dealing with a fifty page novella studded with postcard and TV photos and posed as a very hazy memoir mainly about the unnamed narrator’s relationship to his aunt, though. This titular aunt used to run a motel with her husband in rural Washington for an uncertain span of time across the final third of the 20th century and the first decade of the present one, information delivered to you sometimes in sometimes matter of fact announcement but sometimes in what could be called “ambient” fashion through slowly accruing tossed-off-seeming information. And “ambient” and “novel” normally sit askew from each other, which makes both terms problematic and the reading experience an uncertain one but in the case of the book ambient and novel work together in tandem, both forms present throughout.
Uncertain is maybe the key word to use here because it applies to nearly everything in the novel, from the narrator’s actual relationship to his aunt (he states that his mother won’t explain the blood relation completely and he doesn’t seem all that curious) to what compels him to visit his aunt every season for an all-night marathon of watching a staticky TV in the front office. And even when his aunt was alive there’s the elusive chronology of the novel, a lifespan in which the aunt watched both the Vietnam War and The Colbert Report on TV yet died in 1987 of pancreatic cancer, making her a kind of ambient aunt, always there in the background like a television left on but not watched.
And it’s not as if I’m giving away plot points, here, because there is no plot. An ambient novel is not going to get really heavy-duty in a James Patterson way, then, but even without that there’s not much to hold onto in terms of “something actually happens.” The lack of event (or anything resembling character development) only clears the flesh off the real skeleton of the novel, anyway, which is that it falls somewhere between an essay and standard stream of consciousness meander such that you get a book that puts forth several topics for argument and connects them to each other but only in a tenuous and lateral way. And if what I’m describing sounds like a flat or annoying read, it isn’t; the book is brief enough to drift through more than once and while you won’t get any deeper into the novel during round two the ideas the narrator keeps circling back to take on a kind of plastic quality that gives you guideposts for navigating the blur.
The novel is a book of suggestions more than anything, topics raised but not discussed. And for an example of one of these suggestions, there’s something like this, which isn’t the entirety of the book but pops up a lot:
Re: lying elsewhere in the novel there’s also this, for an example of the circling:
This kind of definition and reworking starts up almost immediately but (for example) lying haunts the reportage of the narrator’s relationships with other characters in the book, all of whom are older, first-generation immigrants. But there’s no finely honed explication of these (or any) statements anywhere; back to TV again because television haunts the novel as much as individual messages haunt, it’s like a TV channel that only plays commercials, albeit captivating ones that advertise identical things.
As essay, what the novel wants to talk to you about is more than one thing, and passes from television to family relations to the immigrant experience in America to the idea of America itself to, most importantly, memory and how it fails and what that means both in the context of personal experience and more broadly as a Chinese immigrant traveling from a lived and particular China to a monolithic America. The novel can’t really be clumped into the patronizing category of “immigrant lit” because there’s no instance of immigration fully realized but passing references are made to the narrator’s mother and father as immigrants and an important kind of plurality of China is set up with the narrator’s repeated mention of his mother and aunt’s various dialects and ways of speaking both “Chinese” and American English–,
This gets countered not by a wide-ranging US, though, but rather by how the US comes to you through the TV set, superficially various but really one constant stream of images the narrator links to memory, in that a given TV event is a memory that doesn’t belong to you and once it’s off-screen maybe it’s not a memory at all.
The one potential frustration you’re going to encounter with the novel-as-essay is that declarations are made and then simply moved aside in smooth, precise narration for the next declaration, and you end up with a collection of arguments/positions/memories that exist mainly in introductory form. This is what I mean when I described the novel as loops–topics like emotion and memory pass by again and again but instead of getting depth you’re getting a kind of breadth found when a subject like emotion (or lack thereof) slides by in different forms and points toward different ends. And because of the flat tone and the narrator’s distance from everything he shares or describes, all of the declarations take on an equal weight, a kind of spin on the ongoing topic of television and the way TV equalizes what it transmits to you by giving it to you all in the same way, at the same volume, every (potentially false) memory as good as the next.
Insomnia and the Aunt invites you to begin to circle issues it raises in your head, push them up against each other, and make sense out of a kind of televised, or ambient, equality of offhand statements. You’re invited to sit with the book and absorb its loose ends, and it’s a very rich reading experience in that sense, so while things may be factually slippery or left unfinished it seems like it’s in a deliberate and considered way, more meditation than conventional novel, or something somewhere between a novel and everything that’s not a novel, every story that can’t be finished or remembered or even told at all.
Nicholas Grider is from Milwaukee.