Notes of a Crocodile (A kind of review)

Reading Notes of a Crocodile is like looking at dozens of pictures of myself taken from dozens of angles over the course of a year.  Some of the pictures are straight-on and I think, “Yes, I feel this exactly,” and some pictures come from an oblique angle and say in my ear, “And this, too, is you.”

Notes of a Crocodile is the second novel of Qiu Miaojin’s to be translated into English.  I read Last Words From Montmartre in university, and I’ve been waiting for four years for this next book.  This could be the last thing of hers I’ll read unless I manage to become really fluent in Taiwanese Chinese, because she killed herself at 26.  Her body of work is small, but inestimably powerful.

Some books you read too early to really appreciate, and you have to revisit them later.  Some books you read later and think, that would have been so helpful for my five years ago self.

Notes of a Crocodile came at exactly the right time, so while I don’t know why it took an age and a half to be published, I’m grateful.

The narrator is a queer college kid, Lazi, who falls for a classmate against all her better judgment.  At no point is their love not fringed with pain, denial, and inability or unwillingness to speak certain truths out loud.  But at the same time it’s a love neither of them can escape from, because they know that some part of them each belongs with the other person.

The story of Lazi’s love for this girl weaves in and out of the greater narrative of her college years and the months after graduation, where she meets a few friends who she lets herself get close to, but where she mostly struggles to be okay with herself let alone anyone else.  All of her relationships reach heights of stunning tenderness and lows of desperate violence.  Nothing is uncomplicated, and often it’s all too much to bear.

One of the biggest obstacles Lazi faces in coming to terms with herself and learning to get along with others is the feeling of duality, which is something I intimately understand living in Japan.  She has one outside persona (like a person stuck inside a box), and she has her internal self, which is eroding under the force of her own denial.  A lot of this is tied to queerness, and her pain at accepting that she is queer.

She writes,

I never let others get too close and simply paraded a fake me that resembled their image of me.  Sweeping that other me in their arms, they led me in a dance within societal norms, along a trajectory based on a delusion…

It goes beyond queerness, too, I think.  She’s trying to figure out how to fit in in a heteronormative/sexual world as a queer girl, but she’s also trying to fit in as someone who feels things way more intensely than other people, and who clearly struggles with serious depression and anxiety.  Feelings of desperation and hopelessness that are, on the surface, tied to events in her life but stretch far below that into her heart.

And it’s serious, this account a girl fighting with these kinds of problems, and it hurts, and it makes me mad reading it and knowing that their environments devoid of support where people grow up feeling like something’s tearing them apart from the inside and they have no idea how to continue, yet can’t do anything but.

But she’s also a kid, and a writer, and parts of it are funny even as they are self-deprecating;

My social identity was comprised of these two distinct, co-existing constructs.  Each writhed toward me with its incessant demands–though when it came down to it, I spent more time getting to know my way around the supermarket next door than I did getting comfortable in my skin.

And Lazi is also a girl in love, and even though her relationships are fraught with myriad anxieties, she’s also dumb with the usual nerves from crushing on someone;

This, from a beautiful girl whom I was already deeply, viscerally attracted to.  Things were getting good… I was about to get knocked out of the ring.  It was clear from that moment on, we’d never be equals.  How could we, with me under the table, scrambling to summon a different me, the one she would worship and put on a pedestal?  No way was I coming out.

That is particular was an image that stuck with me as I had dinner with someone recently and stared at the lotus root in our salad and thought about how she was seeing some kind of glittering mirage of me and if only I could summon some substance behind that idea, then maybe…

Everything in this book reminded me of something: about myself, about someone I know, about some part of my life buried deep, even my own dreams, where Lazi says, “The dream goes on until I say, ‘Let’s not fight anymore.’  But she never responds.  She just walks out, leaving me standing there.”

The translator, Bonnie Huie, wrote that the book can be seen as a manual for young people (she says teenagers, but I think it’s even more relevant for people in their 20s, unless that’s what she meant by teenagers, in which case…)  It’s not a manual for how to lead a straight life (in any sense of the word, she says (ha)), but for how to survive.  It shows us how to live, even as death creeps through every page of the book.  Maybe especially because of that.

A few reviewers commented on the book’s melodrama.  One called it an account of “romantic obsession”.  To those reviewers, but my gut reaction (and continuing reaction really, now that it’s been a few days) is an ineloquent “Fuck you”, but being more mature about it–

A lot of older people wistfully talk about when they were young.  Especially here, a lot of people say, “Oh I’m so jealous!” when I tell them how old I am.  Others condescendingly say, yeah it’s hard when you’re young but you get over it.  Oh nice, to be young and think that all these things you worry about matter so much!

As a generally irritable person it’s hard to say which of those two reactions annoys me more but I’m going to go with the latter right now.

Of course, the vast majority of people survive their youth.  Many people experience a lot of crazy shit, and being young magnifies a lot of it so that the smallest thing can feel like life or death.  We call this melodrama, and it’s a speciality of those of us in our 20s and below.

Melodrama is a term that is often used pejoratively, but to experience melodrama isn’t an illusion.  At the time, it’s as real as anything.  And maybe it’s important to teach young people that these feelings will pass and they’ll get over whatever today’s tragedy is some day.

But it’s equally important to show people that they aren’t alone and that what they’re feeling is valid.  That other people are feeling it too.  That other people are not okay either.

For me, Qiu’s book does that, and does it more intimately and tenderly than any book I’ve ever read.  The idea of her book reaching people who have no one in their lives to support them, who have no idea how to make sense of what they’re feeling, iso heartening.

I don’t think I recommend this book to everyone, because as beautiful as it is it’s also bleak and harsh and intense.  But for the right person at the right time, it can mean everything.


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