[Review] “Behold the Facelessness Behind False-Face”: Flirting with Desire in Grace Chia’s The Wanderlusters

{Written by Chloe Leung, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Grace Chia, The Wanderlusters, Math Paper Press, 2016. 353 pgs.

Grace Chia

Reality is a masquerade for the Cirque Obelisque, a group of international circuit performers in Grace Chia’s The Wanderlusters. Transforming into phoenixes, frogs and all sorts of mythical creatures, these acrobats and dancers (the wanderlusters) constantly travel around the world to stage their performances. For those who are fed up with the fatigue of monotonous work, the circuit life in which people are “married to their vocation” is utopic. Yet Chia suggests that such literal dwelling in utopia is a daily flirtation with danger. While the wanderlusters regard the Cirque Obelisque as their family, Chia reminds us that the logic of making a home out of the circuit is absurd:

The circus is a collective, sometimes a venue, and in certain cases, a collective residing and working in a venue. So how does one physically run away with such a system of a collective and a venue? The grammar is absurd.

This act of running away collectively precisely dramatises the ridiculousness of their self-deceptive escapism. In the conviction of their licensed escape, they are escaping the guilt of their escapism. Specifically, the costume wearing, acting, multi-national descriptions and idiosyncratic—often comical—personalities of these members all invite Bakhtinian Carnivalesque imaginations that draw attention to the darker side of the circuit:

Sometimes the festivities were celebrated within cliques; sometimes they were non-exclusive. Circles overlapped, loyalties crossed, boundaries were broken. In that bracket of time, differences didn’t matter.

Composed of Russian, Chinese, American, Spanish, Portuguese and French members, all from various kirks and upbringings, the Cirque Obelisque stages a scene of the carnival, in which the masquerading and mingling allows beggars to become kings, animals to become humans, tragedy to become comedy, death to become life. In such festivity, Bakhtin suggests that the carnival “liberates the world from all that is dark and terrifying: it takes away all fears and is therefore completely gay and bright. All that was frightening in ordinary life is turned into amusing or ludicrous monstrosities.” While the carnival appears to be “completely gay and bright,” Bakhtin also reminds us of the horrific implications that are rotting beneath the artificial glamour. In cosmeticising horror, Chia’s Bakhtinian circuit verges on self-deception: the dwelling in utopia is in fact a non-dwelling; and utopia is in fact dystopia.

Such self-deception is most dramatised by the ironic exposure of a naked face even when caked with cosmetics: “They look naked; actors, dancers and acrobats pretending to be someone else with the right mix of lights, music, costumes and affectations.” The more make-up one wears, the more naked, or “exposed,” one seems to be. Washed off by the strong lighting on stage, their heavily cosmeticised faces are “exposed”—concealed—by brightness. And yet, such exposing exposes nothing—the stage reveals a fundamental nakedness that goes beyond a face not made up, but one that points to a fundamental nature of human desire.

The notion of desire is a key motif throughout Chia’s novel: Delilah’s thwarted sexual desire with Richard; the budding romance between Godfrey and Nuria; Joe’s perverted desire to eat coins and, most pervasive of all, the wanderlust of the circuit members. Chia emphasises that desire is “a dangerous thing,” since it is a “perpetual search for something unfulfilled.” Characterised by unfulfillment, desire is thus marked by negativity. While desire compels us into a teleological search for a certain object/goal, the definition of desire is poised fundamentally on the “not-yet.” In other words, the existence of desire is affirmed by both the desirable object and an un-achievability of that object. As the performers’ faces are “naked” despite being cosmeticised, desire is also naked of substance despite possessing an ultimate target. Desire is, in Chia’s words, a “parasite”: “The roots grow inwards, eat you from inside.” Once the desired becomes attainable, other desires arise. Desire is ever insatiable and proliferative. Unfortunately, such insatiability seems impossible to curb: “If there is desire, and nothing to feed it, it will suck the host dry.” Though knowing that the feeding of desire would only strength its grip, depriving it would only result in a slow and agonising self-cannibalism. Our desire knows us, it plays to our weakness and it gnaws at us: we are all naked in the face of desire.

Nakedness in desire is then portrayed as two-folded in Chia’s novel. Firstly, its parasitical nature reflects its nakedness of substance. Secondly, the mind game it plays on us strips us naked in its face(lessness). The discomfort of desire’s fundamental “nakedness” is perhaps most poignantly manifested in the enigmatic figure of False Face. From Act I Scene I, False Face, the protagonist of the circuit’s program Animus, is masked until the last scene of the show. In the first scene, the narrator describes how False Face’s face behind the mask is bare—”stoic and unmoving.” When the mask is finally torn off in the last scene, the narrator reveals a shocking truth: “Behold the facelessness behind False Face”—not only is False Face’s bare, he/she is also naked of a face. The emptiness behind False Face’s mask, like parasitical desire, feeds on a mask for an identity, a face. Ironically, this mask is “false,” as suggested by the name False Face. The identity of False Face cannot be identified with his/her face, since he/she is both man and woman—”the androgyne,” who later also transforms into a phoenix. Like the falsity of False Face’s identity, our desire also tricks us into believing in a false satisfaction of desire fulfilled by attaining the desired object, as acquiring the desired object only breeds other related and insatiable desires. False Face’s Rabelaisian shape shifting again invokes the notion of the carnival, in which the cunning of desire is camouflaged.

Not only can False Face be read as an allegory of desire, he/she also embodies a self-conscious being who falls prey to desire. This theatrical figure seems to find its “real life” translation in Delilah’s husband, Joe. Like False Face, Joe is always “an onlooker; an insider on the outside” as a family member of the circuit (OAM). Occupying some of the most elegantly written segments of the novel, Joe’s half-lucid monologues expose the horrendous consequences of putting one’s desire under extreme starvation. Being an introvert and an intellectual, the extroverted and performative nature of the circuit life offer no mercy to him. After years of suppressing his personal desires for the sake of his family, Joe heartbreakingly declares his radical self-detachment: “I am always conscious. Watching myself perform me.” In Joe, one sees how desire fulfils Chia’s prophecy of “suck[ing] its host dry” when starved.

The Wanderlusters offers incredibly perceptive insights into the nature and danger of desire. The epilogue verbalises some of the central themes in the novel, such as in this passage:

[Wanderlust is] [n]ot a travel destination you visit but something you’ve come across at some point in your life. Something momentous that stirs the unconscious part of you.

Wanderlust is more than just being bitten by the travel bug. It is a symptom of desire, an afflicted memory, a perpetual search for something unfulfilled[.]

Yet, I wish the novel had ended at the second last chapter “Off-centre,” where Delilah and her daughter share a telepathic moment of consolation after Joe’s death, with Delilah pondering how to deal with the wreck brought by desires fulfilled and half-fulfilled. The parody of desiring a perpetual vocation, the enigmatic symbol of False Face, the elegance of Joe’s agonising internal monologues that are subtly yet powerfully presented in the previous chapters, I reckon, speak for themselves.

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Chloe Leung

Chloe Leung is currently an MPhil student of English Literary Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include modernist writings (especially Virginia Woolf), postmodernist writings (especially Sylvia Plath and J.M. Coetzee). She is also interested in contemporary writers such as Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, and Penelope Fitzgerald. She is currently working on a thesis focusing Virginia Woolf and early 20th-Century ballet, exploring the portrayal of physical gestures and bodies in stylising self-expression. She graduated from the Master of Arts (Literary Studies) in 2017 and completed her BA in English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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