Novellas are a famously difficult species: neither short stories nor novels, they often can’t find a home, since publishers are hesitant to invest time and money in them. Nonetheless, here we have Taiwanese author Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes: “a perfect novella,” by which I mean that it does exactly, and only, what it needs to do in the exact amount of space it needs to do it.
The Membranes drops us into Momo’s life just before she turns thirty and then slowly moves backward through her memories to find out why she is so emotionally detached. This detachment is deeply ironic, given that Momo is at the top of the dermal therapy profession, where she physically touches several clients each day. Human skin, you see, has become much more brittle since humanity moved under the oceans and gave up the surface to solar radiation and environmental collapse.
In this future underwater world, where nations have realigned themselves and carved out new spaces based on power and prestige (the more things change…), scientists continue to develop ever more advanced androids to fight wars for their governments, and thus human blood is no longer shed. People also use sophisticated cyborgs for replacement organs when necessary. Momo herself, as we learn in the beginning, is a beneficiary of this medical breakthrough. Conceived in a test tube and born with a mysterious illness called the LOGO virus, Momo needed almost all of her organs replaced after just a few years. A cyborg was developed to grow alongside her (named “Andy”) and became Momo’s only playmate for three years while she was in hospital isolation. The central pain in Momo’s life, however, is her mother’s perceived indifference. Despite working hard at the world’s most powerful publishing company so as to pay for Momo’s surgery, Mother never seemed to care about what Momo did with her life.
An unexpected email from her mother asking for a visit on Momo’s thirtieth birthday prompts the young woman to reflect on her decision to go into dermal therapy and her painful childhood memories. Many of Momo’s strategies for understanding her complicated relationship with her mother come from her memories of famous films, novels, and artwork: James Bond movies, Christo’s installations, Shakespeare’s plays, a film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. In fact, Momo and Mother haven’t seen one another for twenty years. Without any familial relationships or friends, and because of her self-imposed isolation (except for when she works on clients), Momo seems almost plastic—like a doll just taken out of its packaging. And yet, she does have a dog (a “real” dog, we’re told, not an android). This seems to be her only bit of warm companionship.
Momo’s work with a special kind of substance called “M skin” enables her business to flourish and attract an elite clientele. This “skin” is rubbed onto a person’s entire body and then removed the following week, allowing the epidermis to be protected but also secretly giving Momo a window onto her clients’ sensations. After removing the skin from a client, Momo can upload its sensor information to her computer and learn all of the intimate bodily details of that person’s life over the past week—a kind of technologically advanced voyeurism.
While Momo works just on her clients’ surfaces, her childhood experience of getting replacement organs from a cyborg makes her obsess about amalgamation. How much of her body was replaced with the cyborg’s body? If it was more than fifty percent, does that make Andy, not Momo, the actual possessor of her body? At one point, Momo wonders if her “body [is] an android grave, the spectral voice of Andy’s spirit echoing in her mind?” (p. 84).
With this novella’s focus on layers separating one thing from another (the surface of the ocean, an extra layer of skin, an invisible emotional wall), Membranes is the perfect title for this tale. And yet, it could have also been called The Canary, since Momo thinks of herself as a bird locked in a cage, lonely and isolated. Indeed, “Salon Canary” is the name of her business. At times, even, the membrane and canary metaphors seem to vie for the upper hand, without ever being reconciled.
All of this would be interesting in and of itself, and the novella could have ended with mother and daughter reconciling (or not). But it’s this meeting between the estranged women that kicks the novella into high gear and opens up a whole other world that had been lurking in the story the entire time. Let me just say, I’m one of those people who enjoys following the twists and turns of a book or film without trying to think ahead to the ending, which allows me to feel that particular thrill when a serious plot twist happens. The twist and subsequent plot development near the end of Membranes, focusing on who/what Momo actually is, was deliciously unexpected. It reoriented the entire story—a very difficult narrative feat.
Thanks to Ari Larissa Heinrich’s seamless translation and contextual essay at the end, readers can better appreciate The Membranes and its place in late twentieth-century Taiwanese speculative fiction. We can also read the novella in the context of other twentieth-century novels and stories from around the world about the ethical questions involved in humans receiving replacement organs (from clones, cyborgs, etc.), including Gheorghe Păun’s “Prosthesosaurs,” Darrieussecq’s Our Life in the Forest, and Homqvist’s The Unit. Ultimately, though, The Membranes can stand on its own as a pitch-perfect meditation on medical advances, transplantation, advanced technology, loneliness, memory, and love.