A joke works like this: setup, punch line, humor.  

The punch line is funny because it allows you to see the setup in a new light. In telling a joke, each part is important to the whole. You can’t skip ahead to the punch line, nor can you spend all your time spelling out the setup. No one can point to the funny part of a joke. The humor comes from the synthesis of each part into something new. 

What happens if we abstract this way of thinking? Instead of thinking of truth and knowledge as objects ripe for discovery, what if we think of them as unfoldings, like a joke? Thinking and understanding as a process—thinking dialectically—is what Dorothy Tse attempts to render in Owlish. 

Professor Q teaches literature at a university in Nevers. He has failed to secure tenure on three occasions. His wife, Maria, works for the government in some bureaucratic capacity. Both are completely uninterested in anything going on around them. They are tepid towards each other, often ignoring or completely oblivious to the other’s existence. Both choose to live within their respective dream worlds. 

Professor Q keeps quiet at department meetings and promptly leaves at their conclusion. “He considered this perfectly acceptable behavior because, in his heart of hearts, he felt it was not really him participating in the meetings, but rather a suit-wearing, tie-sporting, flesh-and-blood mannequin version of himself.” Dissociation, alienation, doll-ification. 

Bored even with the company of friends and visitors, Professor Q imagines himself as a doll, leading him to muse such things as: “But if the Professor Q sitting there hunched over in his seat was just a mannequin, then where, he wondered, had the real him gone?”

Maria is also compared to a doll, not in the manner of her husband, but because she sincerely believes that is what is required of her to be a model citizen, worker, and wife. By following the rules and standards of society to a T, she becomes a vessel for the demands of a higher order: the authoritarian state. But Tse offers little psychological insight into Maria when compared to Professor Q. It is unbalanced and simplistic for Maria to be written off as accepting of authoritarian measures and the silencing of critical thought simply because that is her nature. 

It is when Professor Q comes across a life-size ballerina doll named Aliss in an antique shop that he begins a second life. 

The latter half of the book follows Professor Q’s pathetic fantasies and the lengths he’ll go to to secure them. We voyeuristically observe his determination to remain air-locked within a bubble of uninhibited dreams and sexual escapades, eschewing his city’s student protests and the unraveling of democracy that hums unceasingly in the background. A willful ignorance that becomes more and more entrenched as the book goes on. 

A shadow of our world, Nevers is a thinly veiled stand-in for Hong Kong. Ksana represents China. The student protests and surveillance state measures taken by the Ksanese government more or less mirror the events of 2019 and 2020. 

Tse’s writing is imaginative, vivid, and expansive, kaleidoscopically drawing allusions and references to create a carnival arcade for us to enjoy. She draws our attention to two pieces of art in Professor Q’s possession. One depicts Mephistopheles, the demon with whom Doctor Faustus trades his soul for supreme knowledge and power. The other is of Don Quixote, Certantes’ hidalgo knight-errant seeking to revive an age of chivalry that has long since vanished, preferring to imagine the world as the medieval fantasy of his dreams. These two pieces are proudly displayed in his love nest with Aliss, Professor Q is unaware of the irony these two figures represent. 

Tse only starts to delve into the space between dreams and reality by the time the novel has already started drawing to a close. When Orwellian doublethink is the policy of the state, are dreams also untrustworthy? Or do dreams represent the final place of resistance when everything else is under attack? Here, the majority of the novel’s perverted fantasies and obtuse escapades finally come into focus.  

In the first two-thirds of the book, Professor Q’s movement between his fantasies and his real life serves as a sort of testing ground. Tse blends dreams and reality to guide the reader into a different way of thinking, eventually culminating in two chapters toward the end of the book written in the second person that exist between dreams and the real world. But we only get two chapters. No sooner have we been thrust into this shadow realm than we are pulled out of it. Tse has spent so long on the setup that by the time the punch line rolls around, it’s too short for us to notice. 

Tse is searching for some kind of fundamental consciousness in the space between waking and dreaming. By oscillating between the absurdity of each of these worlds, she hopes to find truth, but the novel spends a disproportionate amount of time preoccupied with dreams and doesn’t always succeed in synthesizing something whole. 

In a surface-level reading of Owlish, the fantastical nature of Tse’s writing opens us up to make the swallowing of an anti-progressive message easier: The only resistance possible is that of dreams. The only way to exist outside the status quo is to retreat into the realm of individual fantasy. We derive pleasure from the continuation of resistance, rather than from working to change the system of oppression itself. 

But Tse is attempting to render something more complex than simply retreat or resistance. She brings the reader into a new mode of thinking. 

“You walk into a building and discover the building is actually an extension of another building. No, not an extension, not a building attached to another building, but a merging of buildings, many buildings folded and tangled together to form a huge architectural conglomeration.” 

This is where Tse most effectively renders a world between waking and dreaming. By continually unfurling both reality and fantasy, she keeps us unsure and skeptical. Like a punch line, the two chapters written in the second person present old information in a new light. Here, Tse best demonstrates an unfolding rather than the oscillation that dominates the novel. 

Truth emerges between reader and work being read. To search for truth within a work and to search for truth within oneself are both false premises. It is in the act of reading, understanding, and critiquing that truth is synthesized. And while Tse is attempting to catalyze this process, the book needs more than 217 pages to achieve this effect. Something is lacking in the final chapters that leaves the reader stranded, as if the curtain is being drawn too early or the alarm sounding before the dream is over: Only for us to forget. 

In Tse’s afterword, she points us toward Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-werk, an influence for Owlish. In his introductory essay, Exposé of 1935, Benjamin concludes that the arcades are “… residues of a dream world. The realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking. Thus, dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it … by cunning.” 

Previous articleOn the Fence Line: Juneteenth reminds us that state prisons suppress solidarity
Next articleNorthwest Asian Weekly sold to new ownership group, including Port Commissioner Sam Cho