Kafka in Taiwan
by Liz Brent
It is seven days before the year 2000. A Kafkaesque plague is sweeping across Taiwan, an end-of-millennium virus that causes its victims to behave like cockroaches crawling around on the floor, avoiding light, seeking out dark, damp, dank hideaways. Part of a city is quarantined. The government has stopped all garbage collection. Bags of waste pile up in alleys, basements, and hallways. Rain pours down relentlessly.
In a dingy apartment building in the quarantined zone live our two nameless protagonists. His apartment is above hers, but they do not know each other. Isolation and alienation are the order of the day. There is precious little dialogue, and the characters are almost always alone in their apartments, usually in their underwear, preparing instant noodles, watching TV, or listening to the radio. His few comforts in life include smoking cigarettes and drinking beer while riding aimlessly up and down in the elevator. She fills her life with hordes of toilet paper and other household paper products that leave room for little else in her small apartment.
A plumber called in to fix a leak from the man's apartment into the woman's apartment succeeds only in boring a hole in his floor that opens onto her ceiling. The hole becomes a source of contention. The man ventures to stick his arm through the hole and dangle it from the ceiling of his downstairs neighbor. She sprays insecticide up into the hole; he covers the hole with a garbage can lid to fend off the bug spray. She plugs the hole with duct tape; he pours water onto the tape in order to remove it. She covers the hole by hanging an umbrella upside down from the ceiling; he removes the umbrella and flicks cigarette ash through the hole.
But love and music are in the air, and apocalypse gives way to absurdity. The slow-paced, contemplative tableau of end-of-millennium ennui is periodically interrupted by a series of extranarrative musical
interludes in the building's hallways and elevators. East meets West as a prima donna, three backup females, and a handful of backup males lip-synch to Mandarin translations of American pop tunes and dance around in a campy send-up of a classic Hollywood musical, oblivious to rain, plague, garbage, and hole.
Beyond its blatant psychosexual connotations, the hole embodies a spiritual and emotional vacuum that seems to be a function of a near complete Westernization. Barely a trace of Asian culture remains amid the consumer excesses, overflowing sewage system, and ever mounting piles of garbage. No wonder its inhabitants seek refuge in the utopian fantasy of a Hollywood musical romance.
The U-M Center for Chinese Studies shows The Hole at Angell Hall on Friday, November 22.
[Originally published in November, 2002.]