Size / / /

“Like democracy, sex is messy and disordering, hateable as well as desirable.”

Oliver Davis and Tim Dean, Hatred of Sex. [1]

The protagonist in Owlish, Professor Q, gets kinky with dolls. Men of culture do love dolls—they build them (think Pygmalion, automatons, Frankenstein, marionettes, robots, artificial intelligence, superhero figurines, inflatable sex toys, holographic pop-idols), buy them, hoard them, hide them, play with them, and certainly also fuck them. The dolls too often stand in for women, and women stand in for dolls, and, slipping, the men sometimes become dolls themselves. And sure, not all men, but fantasies are doll-like, dollish even. Doesn’t everyone have fantasies?

Halfway through the novel, the doll asks Professor Q about the rhythmic “ish.”

“Like … an owl?”

“Yes, something like an owl but also not like an owl. How can I put this? Do you know about amphibians? Creatures that are somewhere in between aquatic and terrestrial—from an evolutionary perspective, a kind of transitional species. If an owl is a bird with a head like a cat, perhaps we should say Owlish is a cat with a head like a bird. To be owlish is to be a creature between a mammal and a bird. To be Owlish is to be a bird that can’t fly, at least not at the moment, but a bird who can climb tall trees and pretend to be a bird, borrowing its nest from other birds.”

“Ish” is chimeric. The suffix belongs to verisimilitude (as in “almost”) and the uncanny (also as in “almost”). The dictionary claims “ish” as an adverb that affixes belonging (as in “Spanish” or “Jewish”) and creates indeterminacy with respect to meaning, but “ish” is also a colloquial figure of speech (as in “I’ll be there around eight-ish”). Owlish is quite comfortable in producing such translucent casualness—quite like a hall of mirrors you don’t remember entering only to see multiplied visions. The story resides in these almosts, the not-quite-theres, in transitory meanings found within a dreamlike landscape.

The suffix also offers a story of becoming, which is the narrative of transformation the professor likes to tell himself, from a “hack teacher” in a “cultureless town,” corrupted by the beige sweaters of married life and steady job of teaching literary criticism, to a flamboyant and seductive figure capable of romance. As children know, becoming is complicated, and Q is an immigrant who has (more or less) comfortably become assimilated into a particular upper-middle-class colonial culture—he has already become, passed over the bildungsroman, so what happens now that the very colonial power has receded? What world should he swear allegiance to now, at fifty, well past his adventurous prime?

The setting of Professor Q’s world is inventive, but there are immediate parallels: “Nevers,” the town in which he lives, is comparable to the international free market of Hong Kong Island; “Valerian,” the language he teaches, is a little like English, and the two empires holding sway, “Ksana” and “Valeria,” belong to a contested system of power being shared between the People’s Republic of China and the UK (within the “two countries, one system” rule). In the novel, the “Vanguard Republic” has steadfastly been ruling Nevers for ten years and a political uprising is brewing against the authoritarian rule. But peel back the layers, and the “ish” forces meaning to become indeterminate again: isn’t Nevers the internment camp where Walter Benjamin was held before his death? Isn’t Valeria borrowed from the Latin (evoking the “valour” and heroism of the epic), and why is it set against the Ksana, a Buddhist term for the smallest moment of time? Peel any further and there’s only irresolute fantasy. The novel’s language intends to confound, or at the very least, make visible the confounding nature of language and the other institutions around us. There’s also the fact of its translation—a practice which plays with the impossibility of conveying meaning—and Bruce deftly allows enough detail to remain enchanted for the culturally ignorant. The effect is sensuous, erotic, lingering dreams. At the outset, the novel already begins with the claim that “love rearranged his [Professor Q’s] vision” and so, in illusions, magic, appearances, displacements, and disappearances, meaning becomes dispersed through imagery. Hong Kong-ish. Immigrant-ish. Doll-ish. Real-ish. Fantastic-ish; a shimmering panoply.

The fantastic element in Owlish is what is commonly framed as “low fantasy” or “urban fantasy” where the magical elements exist within an otherwise familiar fictional world; Farah Mendlesohn would categorize it as a hybrid between a “liminal fantasy,” with the odds and ends being part of consensus reality, and an “intrusive fantasy.” Nonetheless, the style of the text is duplicitous enough, hiding, making associations appear where there were none before, to recall other fiction written in an atmosphere of censorship. This is true of literature written in Hong Kong (and China) under the growing influence of the authoritarian Communist Party of China. Novels like Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City or Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu seek to narrate this indeterminacy through fantasy, but the mode is common. The mode of using the fantastic to simultaneously emphasize political dissent and undermine its penal charge is prevalent too.

Owlish presents an easily categorized dilemma: Scenes from a Marriage. The university man, the working wife ordering the hearth, the crisis of heterosexuality, the desire for youth sublimated into the desire for a youthful body, and ultimately, self dissolution—“the banal drama of a man of fifty,” Sontag decries, “… contains no strictly sexual outrage.” [2] But why shouldn’t it? The cheating husband and perpetually surprised wife are old set pieces, the scandal has been rehearsed, but what of sex, desire, and yes, sexuality, and the unresolved forms that these excesses take? What about the impossibility of settling down? In narratives as deeply enmeshed with fantasy, especially the sexual fantasy, it is difficult to evade charges of psychoanalytic sensemaking, but Owlish obliquely leans into this proclivity. And so, it presents the doll: Aliss, a ballerina in a tutu, an automaton that remains suspended between the animate and the object.

The professor has other dolls, and he grants each of them an explicitly sexual mien and purpose—describing what appeals to him. There is “a flaxen-haired princess” with a “delicate neck,” the “European girl of about fourteen,” the “Dolligal” that he undressed to reveal “the body of an adult woman, but her breasts and pubic area were perfectly smooth” and the tiny black Marilyn Monroe-shaped “sauce bottle” he often stuffed with whisky to let the “golden liquid trickle straight from his body into his mouth.” His dolls were his secrets, his toys, and his sexual objects.

After being haunted by figures of women embodied in every pillar, tree, and stream, the professor is finally given Aliss. This is how the encounter is narrated:

Aliss wasn’t lying down hugging her knees anymore: she was squatting in front of him, her knees spread wide. Her clothes were all gone, and he could see the delicate green veins around her nipples. The hair between her legs was freshly trimmed and within that hair was a slightly parted mouth. Aliss’s body had so many mouths! This mouth, another mouth of partially visible teeth, and those two mouths inlaid with changing-colour eyeballs. Her palms were open and every mouth on her body was crying out to him, soundlessly.

There is a sinister playfulness to the sexual activities that follow these voracious dramas, which predictably culminate when Aliss becomes a “real woman”; the sexual encounter with the “real” doll leaves Professor Q stranded in his grief and impotence. The instability of organizing adult sexuality finds expression in fantastic play, dissolution in its unfortunate “realness.” In recent times, I can only think of Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke , which takes up the narration of the same crisis of heterosexuality—depicting the incoherence of desire by parsing it through commodified attractions, threading it for the reader. But if these pedophiliac desires pose a problem, they are not concealed. Like adultery, the desire for a childlike or infantilized woman is hardly an unusual subject; it leers over narratives about children and for them, often revealing fragile, doll-like, paper-thin forms. “There’s nothing too disturbing about a man desiring little girls—it is, after all, the desire in which little girls are expected to recognize themselves,” writes Jacqueline Rose with respect to J. M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll’s literary fantasies. [3]

What can the doll recognize? Aliss goes through stages: conception, birth, enunciation, reflection, recognition. Once the professor makes a kept woman of her, she emerges from the “upheaval”—animate without strings or gears—and runs around to discover, to remember, to speak and accept speech, to probe into her own desires. She looks into a mirror. She realizes that if made to dance like an automaton, she cannot stop of her own accord. She looks through glass. She tries to understand the desires of gods and their identities. She looks through a crack behind the wall and disappears. Aliss is only recognized at the end of the novel, when her corpse floats upwards, one among the many drowned activists and dissenters who were killed and dumped there.

If Professor Q’s desires excluded the immediate political reality, it only makes sense for Aliss to be sluiced through it. In the background of the novel throbs a political reality so urgent that it makes the fantasy its disambiguation. This is one role of the fantastic in the novel: to depict its foreignness, its secrecy, its disheveled relation with time and space, and to raise the stakes so high that a moment can turn either way. There are police with guns and barricades, protestors with Molotov cocktails and first-aid to soothe the effects of tear gas; the Polytechnic College is under a siege, and there are many, too many, martyrs. The movement is pro-democracy, anti-establishment, protesting Chinese influence in schoolbooks, elections, housing markets, industries. It is 2019 and the entire mainland of Hong Kong (“almost two million” Tse notes in the afterword) is on the streets: “Was that because they had woken up? But more and more often you hear that protestors are dreaming.”

The novel axiomatically returns to the philosopher who demanded too much of disaster even as he lived through it. Owlish does not pay tribute to Walter Benjamin—not quite as it pays tribute to artists like Hieronymus Bosch or to Tchaikovsky’s music—but it incorporates into its entire corpus Benjamin’s last work (“Theses on the Philosophy of History”), written after Nevers, after his escape, and right before his suicide; its disjointed circuitry and propulsive trajectory are shot through the narrative, reflecting back a Hong Kong whose future is foreclosed under Chinese occupation. Would it be too much to claim that Owlish is a document of disaster?

It is through Benjamin that Maria, the wife, becomes a character; her Protestant work ethic, her obeisance, her relentless need for order make Maria present the sort of conformism capable of witnessing progress. When she comes across symbols of change, she denies them, wishing she had never seen them. Neither the blue (a dye used to mark protestors) nor the official document that proclaims the decimation of the Hong Kong she knows and loves is an image she desires to retain, and she quickly returns to her orderly life. It comes as no surprise that, almost as a pattern, Maria is associated with the figure of an angel, “propelled into the future to which [her] back is turned.” [4]

There is allegiance to the eschatology of Benjamin’s document, and Owlish’s narrative plays upon it without a sign of redemption: leaving Aliss to wonder about the identity of god, to disappear into a crack behind a church, and for the entire narrative to keep time in the order of its disasters. Like the theses, Owlish begins with automatons; like Benjamin, its fantasy tries to arrest a moment of dreaming. Owlish is Benjamin’s soothsayer.

Owlish is an abstract, oblique, secretive novel. Its Hong Kong is a particular psychogeography, made apparent in gestures. The surveillance state looms, and its dominant expression is its perception-based “smart” infrastructure, such as lampposts (which protestors systematically toppled in 2019), cameras, sensors; the novel regales readers with the image of open eyes that follow Professor Q and the constant presence of artificial light. The economy in Nevers is blooming, despite reference to the workers who have fallen to their death. The culture is vibrant, though the walls are whitewashed regularly to erase dissenting graffiti. The excessive presence of the army and the bureaucratic processes become part of the plot, in their “green uniforms,” or they intrude, decked in riot gear, “green black creatures with bionic compound eyes and insect mouths.” For the most part, the professor and his wife, Maria, regard it as background noise; when they check Valerian newspapers there’s no evidence of trouble. But they too are visited by surreal images of the insurgency: a procession of mourners in black (a colour widely adopted after the counter-insurgent attack in Yuen Long by workers, students, and even the black block), laser light shows (used by protestors to distract the police), and masked men.

Owlish narrates from a place of flatness, without the didactics of exposition, and so, the fantastic guilelessly reproduces Owlish as a political novel; abstract and oblique because it hides its commitments in plain sight. But the fantasy is not entirely without guile—for the enemy, that is. The fantastic is tactical. “Metaphor and euphemism allow participants to discuss tactics openly while relishing a degree of opacity,” the Vitalist Collective reports about the uprising. [5] The professor is seduced by these innocuous elements; he finds himself in the midst of a crowd that quickly disperses (much like the flash mobs) is asked to pick up an umbrella (a common weapon to deflect surveillance and tear gas cannisters), which lets him into a party full of masked attendees (a useful accessory to subvert facial recognition). The professor and the armed counterinsurgents are also kept at a remove, seeing only “shadows”; the protesting students and workers exist in a “shadow zone.”

The elements of fantasy not only produce sex but also civilization, dreams and also their dissolution, cubbyholes and also rendezvous points. Nevers defamiliarizes Hong Kong, allowing an uprising to be presented without representing its singular actors—without snitching on the insurgency. Owlish does that rare thing: it manages to tell the story of a crowd.

Fantasy, then, does it all. It is palliative, cure, mediator, dream, desire, secret, strategy, and lie. It gives us back to ourselves. But perhaps fantasy also does nothing at all. It’s all Owlish.


[1] Oliver Davis and Tim Dean, Hatred of Sex (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022). [return]

[2] Susan Sontag, “The Double Standard of Aging,” in On Women(London: Penguin Random House, 2023). [return]

[3] Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1984). [return]

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Knopf, 1969). [return]

[5] The Vitalist International, “Summer in Smoke: Report from the World’s Biggest Black Block” (Vitalist International, 2019). [return]

Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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