Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu

Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu  (2012, 210 pages, a collection of short stories)

Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu simply stunned me with its sheer inventiveness and its celebration  of   the darkness that sometimes seem to be spreading over the urban landscapes of the world.  Some times in life you must decide either to cry or laugh.  I think Peter Tieryas Liu  has shown us how we can laugh at some very terrible things without losing our humanity.   My first temptation on this collection is just to blather on a bit then just say read it as soon as you can and you can thank me latter.

I do not especially like posts on anthologies of short stories that just rave on about them in general.  When I visit a forest I do not just like to see the trees, I like to see the moss that grows on them, the vines that climb them and listen to the birds that make them their home.  I like to peel the bark from the trees to see the insects that bore into the trees, I like to study their roots. Sometimes I like to climb to the top of the trees and survey the environment,  once in a rare while I build a tree house and stay a while.  In the case of Watering Heavens, I pulled the rope ladder up after me because some of the denizens of this forest are more than a bit edgy..   Be sure to be on the look out for several million displaced rats!  If your laptop does not work in your tree house, there will be an IT guy along soon.     Get ready to laugh and be amazed by the sheer creativity of this collection.

There are twenty stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu.   As is my normal procedure I will talk individually about enough of the stories to give a potential reader a feel for the collection without spoiling any of the superbly entertaining plots.   Upon completion of this I will then talk a bit about why I love these stories so much.

"Chronology of an Egg"

"I first met Sarah Chao in Beijing over tequila shots after a game conference.  I tell her she is beautiful and she tells me she has a genetic quirk that scares off most men.

'Every time I have sex, I lay an egg'"

The narrator figures this is a joke and gives her his email address when he hears she will be coming to the USA in a few months.  Sure enough in four moths she shows up in Los Angeles and he takes her to "an exhibition about talented circus performers who've died in the act".   The story is told in the first person by Ethan Zhou a game designer who lived in China for three years researching pandas and iguanas.  Sarah Chao is a producer (of video games-not sure) who has spent half of her life in Kentucky and half in China.   She has a fun thing she likes to do.  Whenever she leaves a restaurant she writes on the wall outside it, in Mandarin,  a rating for the place as a warning to others.  She also does this to bars and once even writes something on the dead of a drunk.   She is amazed and a bit revolted of the shallow snobbish culture of Sunset road where breast implants are the norm and everyone is   a celebrity wannabe.  The woman asks him what he wants to be.   He says in the short term he wants some green tea ice cream. I can relate as I love green tea frozen yogurt.   He tells her the story of his ex-hippie uncle who started a green tea ice cream parlor.  He ended up killing himself by putting 1000 Tylenol pills in his own ice cream.    The story is told in the form of journal entries.  In one scene which made me think of the scene in  Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance they visit a dance club.  As the evening passes and the tequila shots flow on they wind up in a Korean Karaoke club.  As the night goes on Sarah and Ethan have some real fascinating conversations.   They wind up at her place.   Now things get unspeakably weird.  I was sitting by myself in our gazebo when I read the ending of the story.   At first something really shocking and immaculately described occurs and just when you think things cannot get any stranger one of the very weirdest shocking and hilarious endings to a story I have ever read caused me to gasp out loud in the darkness of the Manila night.  I guarantee you will not forget this ending and you will have wonder if you could do what Ethan and Sarah do.   I finished this story pretty much flabbergasted and eager to read on.  "Chronology of an Egg" is a great story.

"The Wolf's Choice"

"Was she trying to reproduce that moment when she poured Drano into her coffee?"

"The Wolf's Choice", also told by a young man, is a fascinating story about a man trying to remake and run from himself.   He spends eight months  adrift, seeking solitude, "wandering through the honeycomb of Asia, shifty Bangkok, grand Beijing, contemporary Shanghai, futuristic Tokyo".    While in Korea he has plastic surgery done to reshape his face.  He returns to his old work place and his colleagues are shocked by the change.  His coworkers do not understand at all what is behind this.  He feels very alienated from office politics and cubicle wars.   He goes to see his family hoping they will make him feel better.  Instead they  feel insulted.  Why did he reject the face he was born with?   He worked, as did the man in "Chronology of an Egg" (maybe it is the same man) as a programmer for online games.   The jobs of the programmers are in the process of being outsourced to India and China.   He gets laid off and he is informed by Nikki from Human Resources.    She is young and cute and she asks him out for a drink after telling him she feels bad over his layoff.    He runs into a panic stricken VP who was just laid off.    We wonder how long until he cracks up his Porsche, assuming he can keep the payments up.   He talks about the differences in attitudes of  people in Los Angeles and the parts of Asia he has been to.   Nikki comes across pretty vacuous.   The ending is just great.   Again I could not help laughing and it was a perfect depiction of some very plausible events.


"The thousand multiplied into millions and the town became a playground for rodents.   Other than curious tourists or travelers who got lost, no one new ever came to town.  Except for the new town hooker, Kathy Chao and a failed film director, Larry Chao."

"Rodenticide" somehow maybe be think of a Simpson's plot written by William Burroughs with the help of Hunter Thompson, after a  very bad, very   long night in Tangiers.

The story opens with Mayor Douglas Kwan in bed in a cheap motel with a hooker.   He is explaining his political plans to her when she tells him "Your time's almost up".   He tells her he has plans to get himself elected to congress.

The setting is the town of Antarsia and it was founded by a whacked out millionaire who created a city out of a H. P. Lovecraft story.   A famous entrepreneur, Wang Toufa (a Pynchonesque name) thought he could cure baldness and erectile dysfunction and was convinced that these were connected.   He brought in 1000s of rats to use in experiments and when the idea failed he let the rats go and now they have turned into millions and they totally dominate the town.     Mayor Kwan figures if he can get rid of the rats popular esteem will take him into Congress.   The story lets is learn more about the hooker Kathy Chao (she and the mayor Douglas Chao are not related)  among them that her best friend killed herself.    The extermination campaign begins.   Rat poison is dropped off all over town.  A small bounty is paid for dead rats.   The town has been doing real bad lately, made worse as no business will open there.   We learn a lot about the rat killing crusade.   "Rodenticide" is, among many other things, a great satire on American politics.   You create a problem and then you solve it  at other people's expense.   There is a shocking protest of the rat campaign.   This was just a flat out really fun to read totally imaginative story.   The ending is incredibly gruesome.  Liu is a very cinematic writer.

"The Political Misconception of Getting Fired"

"When the steak arrived, I ripped it apart with my bare hands, chewing savagely, with my mouth wide open"

Several of the stories are told in the first person by a man, seems like in his mid-twenties or so, who works for a southern California IT company called SolTech.  There is a lot in this story.   I was really moved by the part of it where he recalls his father who failed at every job he ever tried and died working as a clerk surrounded by people a third his age.   The narrator makes very good money and he knows it enslaves him and his coworkers through their obsessions over the latest gadgets.   He has been at SolTech nine years.  He has just gotten a Facebook message from a woman he had a crush on in high school but who would not give him the time  of day.   He was surprised when she suggested they meet up but he agreed to it.    I know enough now to expect some weird dark twists and turns in this story and Liu does not disappoint me.  There are really two plots.  One involves downsizing at SolTech and the other with his old flame who thinks she was kidnapped by aliens.   Like the other stories, death haunts us and the search for love is ongoing, hidden though it may be.  One of  the plot lines comes to what might pass for a happy ending.    I really liked the way the backstabbing and the lying were depicted at SolTech.   It reminded me of a big international corporation I once worked for.


"The doctors told me that brain imagining had revealed a colony of tapeworms in my brain"

If you ever wondered what it might be like to have tapeworms living in your brain, then read "Colony".  It is one of the shortest stories in the collection, three pages, and one of the strangest, and this is saying something!   I love and am very baffled by this line "relativity is sugar mixed with with a dissolving chocolate souffle, and all the lovers I've disappointed remind me of overcooked salmon simmering in brunt coffee and impossible expectations".   The man feels guilty about medical plans to kill the tapeworms.  It may also be a story of a man completely driven mad by isolation amid too much stimulation trying to find way to explain himself to himself.  


"I'm inside an abandoned shopping mall and a hooker's chasing me with a kitchen knife"

Like a number of the other stories in the collection, this is a story told by an IT worker.   It is kind of a dystopian work but not quite.   Both of the characters, as are a lot of the people in these stories are Chinese-Americans.  I guess part of the angst in these stories comes from trying to blend two very different cultures.  This story also involves the LA Branch of SolTech. SolTech is an IT company but they are not doing Nobel Prize type stuff.   The narrator and his friend Martin work on computer simulated Vegas dealers in the form of Playmates.  Once they are perfected, casinos will replace dealers with these programs.   The man and Martin talk about guy stuff, girls, cheap pizza the company gives them instead of overtime, and the guilt they feel about created digital replacements for people.  I do not want to tell the plot of this story other than to say it involves and abandoned shopping mall full of the long time out of work, hookers with AIDs, the insane, and now his friend Martin.   This story would make the basis for an exciting video game with the narrator running through the old mall killing hookers and being chased by lunatics.   

There are in all 20 stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu, each one stranger than the one before it.  They are sort of interrelated in that several of them deal with an IT worker and his life.  Most of the main characters are Chinese- Americans, mostly with American roots but still with ties to a very different world.   Some of the characters speak Mandrian and three, though we think they are not related, have the same last name, "Chao". 

I really liked the stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu.  They contain strong elements of surrealism, I think Alfred Jarry would like them, and magic realism.  The stories are very mega-city urban and very tuned in to how social media and its permeation of the world connects us no more than it isolates us.  There is a preoccupation with death and suicide.  Someone kills themselves in a number of the stories.  There are a lot of hookers and no happy old fashioned relationships or marriages accept maybe of a character's grandparents and even that may have been a sham.  The use of language is marvelous, the details are perfect.   At the start of the e-book there is a quote about the book that says "his surreal brilliance and vulnerability reminds one of the best of Borges, Calvino and Pynchon".   When I first read this I thought "oh, sure" but I now fully agree with this (with the clarification I have not read much Calvino, not enough Borges but I have read all of Pynchon's work more than once).  Of course Pynchon constructs a whole universe but I respect the comparison.    I know of no other writer as attuned to how social media is taking over the world as Liu.  

Above all these stories are great fun to read, really laugh out loud hilarious.  Even  people like me who grew up reading Mad Magazine will love these stories.   

Author Data

Peter Tieryas Liu has almost 200 publications in magazines and journals including Adirondack Review, anderbo, Bitter Oleander, Bookslut, Camera Obscura Journal, decomP, Evergreen Review, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Kartika Review, Prism Review, Toad Suck Review, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA, and was the recipient of the 2012 Fiction Award from Mojo, the magazine run by Wichita State University. He has also worked as a technical writer for LucasArts, the gaming division of LucasFilm. 

You can read some of his work online

Word Riot published the Death Artist:

decomP published Colony

Johnny America published Cold Fusion:

Kartika Review published Searching for Normalcy:

You can learn more about his work on his webpage

The publisher, based in Hong Kong, Signal 8 Press has a very interesting webpage.

You can buy it in paperback or Kindle from Amazon

 I will soon be doing an interview with the author and I may talk also about one or two more stories then as well as do a word count commentary on his work.

I give this collection my total endorsement with the remark that part of it would be at least r-rated if made into a movie.  

There is a  very perceptive post on Suko's Notebook on the book.


Suko said...

Mel, I'm so glad you also read and reviewed this phenomenal collection of short stories by Peter Tieryas Liu!

My review approach differed a bit from yours.

Mel u said...

Suko. It really is an amazing collection. I will add in a link to your review.

Paul McVeigh said...

Sounds fantastic. Thanks for bringing to me attention Mel.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mel, thanks again for such an amazing and insightful review exploring so many of the stories contained within the collection. I'm really looking forward to our interview and in some ways, reading this review has made me see aspects to my writing I hadn't even thought to connect. Am honored to be included among such great reviews as well! Cheers

shaunag said...

Mel and Suko, based on your reviews - what great ones - I've just ordered a kindle copy of Peter Tieryas' collection of stories. Sounds amazing, and so original. Peter, I look forward to reading your interview with Mel. Best, Shauna