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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Windup Girl


The book has many striking qualities, among which is the grammatically correct use of Chinese curse words. Of the multiple (third person limited) points of view --- a white man, a Japanese sex toy, a couple of Thai police officials, a Chinese refugee --- most characters are quite believable. What impressed me the most though is the sense of urgency and tension anyone who's lived in social instability and material scarcity can recognize, but unexpected coming from a white, male, American author.

Most of the time Bacigalupi's writing style sits in the sweep spot between efficiency and literary flourish. The descriptions of a tropical and crammed city teetering on the edge of destruction are often so vivid one could taste and smell it. Occasionally it becomes a bit ponderous and slows down the story. There are passages that immediately recall Graham Greene and the imperialist period SE Asia. What's old is new again, indeed.

In general I am perfectly fine with the moral ambiguity of the story. Oddly, the worst drawn, most underdeveloped character is the white man representing the West. A corporate man who acts more like a CIA agent, a scrubbed version of Alden Pyle ("The Quiet American"). He is the only POV character without a back story.

The title character, the Japanese "windup girl", a genetically modified human who was both vulnerable and physically superior to humans, is also less than satisfactory. A few elements in her story line do not add up --- for example, why did she yearn for a fabled community of New People in the north but never made a real effort to escape the city? She was physically superhuman and, although prone to overheating due to genetically designed small pores, she could have jumped in the river and swam. When she became the target of city-wide manhunt later in the novel, it got increasingly unbelievable that she could have eluded people's eyes. She lived in a slum, a crowded small neighborhood where everyone knew everyone and any strange woman --- especially a pretty one --- would instantly attract attention. Ultimately there is just something about the stereotypical Japanese heroine (in the eyes of white males?), who must be both vulnerable and tough, innocent and kind of dumb, with an unmistakable streak of dependence on men, that really turned me off. Also, the premise of a cyborg trying to become human is a bit old and tired.

The chapters on the always tenacious, calculating Chinese refugee, the passionate Thai policeman, and the Thai policewoman are the best parts of the novel. They are completely believable and vivid, full of layers of complexity and an irrepressible vitality.

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