Review: The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi


In Wu-Ming Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes, a tsunami washes the Pacific Trash Vortex—an island of garbage—onto the coast of Taiwan, combining an environmental tragedy with personal ones. The novel follows Alice Shih, a writer grieving the loss of her husband and son to a mountaineering accident, and Atile’i, a Pacific Islander set out to sea as a sacrifice as tradition requires of second sons, through the events leading up to the tsunami and their response to it.

Along the way, Compound Eyes introduces readers to many secondary characters and their back stories, including Dahu, a skilled mountaineer and member of the Bunun aboriginal group; Hafay, a café owner and member of the Pangcah aboriginal group; and Sara, a Norwegian marine biologist and environmental activist.

The characters’ different worldviews often come into contact. Atile’i’s native island of Wayo Wayo has no written language, so Alice tells him about writing while he tells her about other methods of communication.

The prose is rich with similes (someone sings “like the sound of some plant weeping”) and often adopts the tone of oral storytelling (“Oh, when would it end?”). A minority of similes fall flat for being too obvious—after Alice sees something on TV, she runs “like someone who’s just seen something”—but are forgivable.

There are fantastic elements in this novel, most notably the title character, who lectures on writing and memory, but its underlying message is very real: Respect the environment, don’t get greedy, use science wisely. Back in his home village after the mountain washes ashore, Dahu reflects “Now I just feel we have to make sure that mountains like this don’t disappear, mountains without potholed roads or tunnels, mountains where goats and boars and deer can run wild.”

Through conversations between Sara and her boyfriend Detlef, an engineer, the novel provides glimpses of the tension between environmentalism and human standards of living. After Detlef tells her that technological development can increase the earth’s capacity to support people, Sara responds that “the reality is that the wealth never reaches the poor, and they’re the ones who have the most mouths to feed. This issue cannot be solved politically or technically, by another Green Revolution.”

But don’t jobs created by industries that hurt the environment benefit those who otherwise wouldn’t have work? (When Alice remembers a factory polluting her grandmother’s village, she notes that the factory “needed workers, not old people.”) How can environmentalists keep the developing world from bringing the earth over capacity without condemning it to continued poverty? Compound Eyes can’t be faulted for not pursuing these questions further, but reading these passages made me wonder if Ming-Yi has done so in any of his other writings, which unfortunately have not been translated into English.

In some nice satirical bits, the novel mocks journalists’ tendency toward sensationalism over substance (it mocks government ineptitude as well, but without as much humor). One TV reporter on the coast to cover the Vortex is hit and stunned by a piece of trash: “Once squawky, she reportedly became unusually quiet, soft-spoken and lucid after the incident, and was soon relieved of her regular duties.” Print journalists aren’t spared either: one newspaper announces that “Taiwan is about to be sucked into the Trash Vortex!”

Ming-Yi has taken some liberties with the Vortex, as a novelist has every right to do and the journalists mentioned above have no right to do. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Vortex, or “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” isn’t an island but a hard-to-define region dense with garbage, much of it very small.

“I am a poet, as well as a scientist,” says Sara. “But I enjoy being a poet more.” In Compound Eyes, Ming-Yi is both novelist and activist, neither letting the novel’s message obscure the beauty of his storytelling nor letting his art ramble on for its own sake.

–Available May 20th from Random House/Pantheon


2 thoughts on “Review: The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

  1. timdechene

    Quote from article:

    “But don’t jobs created by industries that hurt the environment benefit those who otherwise wouldn’t have work?”

    End quote.

    While true in terms of “Hey, there are more jobs here, guys. We can get paid again!”, if the environmental effects are negative enough, it can outweigh the positive aspects. I suppose really the best way to measure the impact is to do so on a person by person basis.

    “Does the benefit of getting paid three times as much as a fisherman outweigh the fact that by working like this I am creating chemicals and whatnot that totally destroy the ability of a fisherman to do his/her job?”

    “Yep. Screw those guys, I never liked fish anyway.”

    1. rnaokiobryan Post author

      Fair point–I wish Sara and Detlef had touched on that during their conversations. Again, I loved this book, but I know that environmentalism can seem out-of-touch to people struggling to get by, and that’s a perception environmentalists have to fight.


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