[REVIEW] “Layered Spaces: A Review of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes” by Serena De Marchi

{Written by Serena De Marchi, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Chi Ta-wei (author), Ari Larissa Heinrich (translator), The Membranes, Columbia University Press, 2021. 168 pgs.

Chi Ta-wei’s classic of Taiwanese dystopian fiction The Membranes, now translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich for Columbia University Press, is an exploration of the contact zones between human and non-human consciousness, corporality, and identity. Reading it feels like peeling off the skin of a fruit, except that when it seems you are getting to the juicy flesh, it turns out to be only another veil—a membrane—and you’ve got to keep going.

Speaking of fruit, Momo, whose name means peach in Japanese, is a renowned beautician in T City, which in 2100 is located, like all humanity, at the bottom of the sea (the sun has scorched the Earth and made life on the planet impossible). As a “dermal care technician”, Momo’s specialty is M skin treatment. M skin (which is short for Membrane skin) looks exactly like a lotion that she massages on the bodies of her clients and functions as a protective layer to preserve youth and beauty. However, what her clients don’t know is that M skin is actually a very sophisticated scanner that can track and store everything that is experienced by the body wearing it: temperature, itches, pain, arousal, sexual contact. By accessing the information imprinted on this “memory skin”, Momo can keep a record of all her clients’ sensual lives and adjust her treatments accordingly.

As far back as a quarter of a century ago—The Membranes was published in Taiwan in 1995—Chi Ta-wei envisioned a future of surveillance capitalism ante litteram, one in which desires are intercepted by sophisticated machines and fed into the infinite loop of ever-learning algorithms. On the one hand, Momo seems perfectly integrated in this reality, being both consumer and consumed. However, at a deeper level, she manifests her estrangement from a world she ultimately feels she doesn’t belong to, as if she were “a misfit peach, unsatisfied with its home tree and dreaming of growing on a different tree”.

As her thirtieth birthday approaches, Momo receives a message from her estranged mother, who wants to reconnect. At this point, the story takes us back to Momo’s childhood; she was a very sick kid, and spent most of her young life confined to a sterile hospital room with only a cyborg, Andy, for company. Girl and robot soon develop a symbiotic relationship, until they become literally inseparable, as, during one of Momo’s surgical operations, Andy is eventually merged with her body. Momo is therefore part-cyborg, part-human, although it is not so clear (to her and to the reader alike) where the boundary between the two is, and whether it was Andy that had become part of Momo or “it was Momo who had become some piece of Andy’s flesh”.

The novel not only blurs the lines between human and non-human, but also between male and female; at one point in the story we discover that Momo was actually born with a penis, which is removed during the operation (to her, it was “just an annoying bit of flesh” anyway). Momo experiences reality through her queer body, which defies bionormative and heteronormative classifications—a theme that is particularly resonant with today’s renewed attention to gender identity and expression.

Chi Ta-wei wrote The Membranes in a post martial-law Taiwan that was opening up to all sorts of external stimuli and influences. Literary production started to experiment with language, style, and genre, and ventured to explore topics previously considered taboo. Chi’s interest toward queer and feminist theory reflects the cultural ferment of the time—another author who explored these themes was Qiu Miaojin, who wrote about lesbian love in her celebrated Notes of a Crocodile (1994). This cultural voracity is also evident in the rich intertextual fabric that makes up Momo’s world: she has read Calvino, Murakami, and Shakespeare, is familiar with Lacan’s theories and has watched the films of Bergman and Almodóvar.

As the story unfolds, and the narrative membranes come off one after the other, we find out that what Momo knows about herself and the world is only partially true. Eventually she finds that her mother has been secretly keeping a video-diary detailing every little aspect of her life, as if she had been secretly watching her daughter from a distance during all those years when the two weren’t talking to one another. Except these documentaries have been shot from Momo’s perspective, so that her figure does not feature in any of the videos. (“In the journal of her life, her own face never appeared.”) After Momo finished watching all the videos of her past, she is left with a sense of déjà vu

Momo watched herself watching herself onscreen, a scene within a scene of her watching herself, and watched the scene within this scene of watching herself onscreen, watching, watching the scene of…

—Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

Momo is caught up in a strange loop of reality in which she no longer recognises herself. The past, the present and the future overlap, and she is dispersed amid the membranes that made up the world as she knew it.

In a sense, the novel is an imaginative exploration of alienation in a post-modern, neo-colonial, consumerist society. Chi’s dystopic humanity is still anchored to anthropocentric visions of the global ecosystem; it has not managed to find a way to effectively counteract climate change, but merely adapts to the destruction it has brought upon itself. As nations gradually relocate to the bottom of the ocean, they replicate the usual predatory power schemes, each attempting to grab as much territory as possible (later, this “all-you-can-eat” approach was replaced with a relatively more balanced “proportion principle”). In this new under-world order, New Taiwan “established itself as the financial centre of (undersea) Southeast Asia, a key player with unrivalled regional influence”. Whereas humanity has moved to the ocean floor, the Earth’s surface is populated by factory-produced cyborgs that are still needed to carry out essential work: they are prison workers, janitors, shuttle drivers, and, of course, organ donors. Although they look like humans, cyborgs have no citizenship, no rights and are merely considered as useful devices (ironically, these efficient hyper-productive beings cannot re-produce themselves). Cultural expression too has been commodified. Marketed by big publishing corporations, texts are now consumed in the shape of conveniently compact “laserdiscs”. Momo is but a tiny mechanism in this well-oiled system of production, and throughout the story, she will never learn the full extent of her participation in it. In Chi’s rather bleak vision of the future, storytelling does not prompt awakening or catharsis; on the contrary, it actively sustains the scripted reality that is Momo’s world.

As the translator Ari Larissa Heinrich mentions in the afterword, The Membranes provides an interesting counterpart to the relatively recent attention given to contemporary Chinese science fiction writing in translation, testifying to the variety and creativity of Sinophone writers exploring post-human futurescapes that interrogate the multiple possibilities of our being in the world(s). As we follow Momo’s attempts at navigating the layered spaces of her identity in a reality mediated by smart technologies and capitalist logic, we find ourselves wandering amid the boundaries of our own perceptions and questioning the situatedness of our own desires.

How to cite: De Marchi, Serena. “Layered Spaces: A Review of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 03 Jun. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/06/03/membranes/.

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Serena De Marchi is a postdoctoral researcher currently based in Taipei. She earned a PhD from Stockholm University with a thesis titled Prisonscape: Literary Reconfigurations of the Real and Imagined Worlds of the Chinese Prison. She is currently a visiting researcher at National Taiwan Normal University as a Taiwan Fellowship recipient. She is interested in contemporary Sinophone literature that plays with memory and history, lived and imagined spaces, narrative bodies. She irregularly writes about what she reads in her blog, Sinofiction.

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