On Tan Lin's 'Insomnia and the Aunt' (2011)
Like many poets, I consume large quantities of television, bingeing on excellent and dumb shows as a way to wind down after teaching or writing or other emotionally drafting activity. Poets, of course, are not the only people who do this, TV being the centripetal force that it is and that it has been for nearly a century. Television before the golden age — pre-internet, before streaming, and way before Asian Americans enjoyed substantive roles as reasonably nuanced human beings and protagonists — is also a subject of Tan Lin’s ambient novel Insomnia and the Aunt, which blends fiction and multimedia memoir to deliver the portrait of an enigmatic relative who may or may not be real.
Throughout this short work, which reads to me like a hybrid-genre novella or verse-memoir, the narrator recalls watching TV during the late twentieth century with his aunt who runs a motel in the Pacific Northwest. As in his other works, Lin’s approach to rendering identity and character are oblique, focusing not on big events or the character’s encounters with adversity and subsequent triumphs, but on the technological and pop culture ambience that imbues, informs, and shapes the individual life. The narrator fondly describes shows that he and his aunt watched together late at night in the motel, back when one watched what was on, which was often unexciting (reruns of The Honeymooners, PBS broadcasts of the Boston Pops, Late Night with Conan O’Brien), while reflecting on his and his aunt’s love of TV and its effects on his family, particularly her:
For an immigrant like my aunt, America is not the images on a TV, it basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it with paper doilies, vanilla incense and stuffed Garfields. This is also why my aunt thinks all TV, even live TV, is canned, and why she thinks America is basically not a place or even an image, but furniture. For my aunt, the live broadcast of the Vietnam War of my youth and her early middle ages resembled a re-run. My aunt accordingly has very few memories of violence or even racism in America. TV has made her forget all these things.
Notably, the narrator ruminates on TV’s leveling influence with appreciation, not condemnation, talking about it as a true lover, past and present. The tone is nostalgic, even, and wistful with the text punctuated by footnotes that lead to URLs that intersect with the narration and with uncaptioned mid-century images of postcards sent from the aunt to the narrator’s mother and book covers and stills from TV shows and movies mentioned in passing. In highlighting the media that surround memories of the aunt, Lin suggests that we are as much the sum of our Google searches and viewing choices as we are comprised by more obvious markers of identity like gender, race, and political affiliations. The portrait of the aunt remains elliptical throughout, though the narrator’s desire to know her and recollect memories of her after her death intensifies lightly as the story progresses, as in this poignant twining of the character and her pastime:
Because it is so boring, a TV, and here I am talking about any TV in the world, makes my aunt’s feelings ambient and hallucinogenic in the moment I walk into the room. And now, like a bout of hysteria or a cold that has run its course, a few TV programs are all that I really have left of my aunt. She appears late at night, along with Sulu on Star Trek or the dying gazelles on the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. She feels like the weakest of descriptions of things I can no longer see, a kind of half object or philosophical riddle dreamed up in China after the fall of the Kuomintang or Germany just after the wars.
Although the work reflects mostly on popular culture, Lin folds key historical moments into his narration, acknowledging personal and institutional discrimination against API Americans as facts and factors in streams of media, beaming to us from experience lived and observed, sometimes at the edge of recollection. As with the pop references, these moments including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and racist housing practices directed at the narrator’s Chinese American parents, blend seamlessly with the narrator’s other thoughts on the enduring ephemera that can compose familial happiness.