by Kim Gek Lin Short
Lyric Novel | 6"x8", 132 pp, pbk
Tarpaulin Sky Press, June 2012
Just like the book’s protagonist, La La, who “...wears all her clothes. Her boots. All three skirts. All the shirts. The panties, many of them...” China Cowboy by Kim Gek Lin Short is an expertly woven story told in tangled layers.
It is the story of an abduction or escape, a brutal love affair or abusive imprisonment, rise to fame or road to perdition, art installation or songbook retrospective. It is each of these things in turn or neither depending on the narrator in charge at any given moment.
Told in turn from the perspectives of each of the book’s primary characters (La La and Ren), China Cowboy is a successfully executed experiment in prosody that simultaneously braids and frays narrative timelines and expectations, bringing the reader to the brink of every sensory extreme and back again. The result is a darkly surreal adventure in perception that leaves one’s nerves exposed and moral fortitude shaken to their respective foundations.
As a note in the lower right hand corner of both the back cover and the title page indicates, “China Cowboy is Told in Technicolor.” In retrospect, this is perhaps a content warning of sorts for a book publishing industry still as yet (blessedly) unregulated by any sort of parental advisory ratings agency.
On the other hand, to use the euphemism of a bygone era and call the language of this book “colorful” would be both a dangerous understatement and a grave disservice to the unrelentingly aggressive, continuously shifting, sexually charged and poetically crafted syntaxes that Kim Gek Lin Short stitches together with apparent ease.
Take the following lines from “American Ball” by way of example:
“It is not a ball. It is a rubber doll, but only part of her. The ass and pussy part. I decide I do not want the flashlight anymore I turn it off. I want my ball back. I lie on the ball but it is not the same. I want to scream. But I don’t.”
Faced with hundreds of provocatively conflicted passages such as this, one does not “read” the pages of China Cowboy so much as one is confronted by them and left to weigh the visceral experiences they both depict/imprint in the mind’s eye and evoke/carve within the physical body.
Which is to say: When you pick up this book (and you should) be prepared to hold both your brightest hopes for humanity and darkest emotional expectations in a precarious balance. By the time you put it down again, the scales of your psyche will never be quite the same.