Alvin Lu, a second-generation Taiwanese American who was born and currently lives in San Francisco, is the author of The Hell Screens, a stylish thriller set in Taipei. The protagonist is Chinese-American Cheng-Ming, who is obsessed with a serial rapist-murderer known as the Taxi Driver Killer (aka K), who is terrorizing the city. The police are constantly closing in on the killer but are never quite able to catch him. K is in frequent communication with the media, scorning his pursuers and taking pleasure in his infamy.
The Hell Screens was originally published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 2000, and was reissued in August 2019 by Camphor Press. The first edition received a lot of praise (when your novel is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review with a comparison to Nabokov, then you know you’re doing something right). Like many good books which find themselves out of print, The Hell Screens was a victim of a musical chairs succession of acquisitions, with publisher Four Walls Eight Windows acquired in 2004, and this new publisher in turn acquired in 2007, and then the third publisher bought by a private equity firm. But enough about the woes of the publishing industry; time to talk with Alvin Lu.
* * *
What’s your connection to Taiwan?
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from there. I spent childhood summers in Tainan with my grandparents and extended family.
What was the inspiration for the novel?
I lived in Taipei for about a year, keeping afloat with odd jobs of the expat variety. This was in the early 90s. People who were there will probably remember the atmosphere as being very charged. Everyone was placing their bets.
What do you mean by “placing their bets”?
What’s the opposite of “desperate”? Wild hope? People trying to get in on the last wave of the bubble, wringing whatever they can out of it, taking their chances on stocks or starting their own crazy business, before the window closes. But also politically. There were mass demonstrations, armored vehicles and soldiers in the streets, that kind of stuff.
I had a lot of time on my hands and spent it walking around and on buses and ran into some interesting characters. The writing of the book took place some years later. San Francisco, where I was living, was charged, in a different way. Everyone was placing their bets, too. This was dot-com 1.0, which isn’t like now. Images and a certain mood I was trying to capture made it into the book.
It seems pretty obvious reading The Hell Screens that the infamous crime rampage of Chen Chin-hsing in 1997 was a strong influence. At that time there was something of a violent crime wave – amplified in the public imagination by the media – and then came Chen’s trail of kidnapping, robbery, rape, and murder: an eight-month crime saga that shook the country. And the climax saw Chen taking an expat family from South Africa hostage, a drama that was played out live on national television.
I spent parts of 1997 in Taiwan. I was writing Hell Screens by then and used my trips to corroborate parts of the book (which I wasn’t really thinking of as “a book” anymore at the time, more like a personal project). It was transforming from a “this was what happened”-type narrative into the journal-entry “this is happening to you now” form it ultimately took on. I think I kind of improvisationally mixed in the daily news into the story, to jolt it into immediacy. That crime wave was palpable then, like you could make wallpaper out of the headlines. In that sense, the stuff about K taking over the mind space of the narrator is “what really happened.”
What does the the title The Hell Screens refer to?
It comes from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s (the guy who wrote “Rashomon”) “Hell Screen,” which was one of the sources I was going back to while writing, although probably the more direct inspiration were the two companion pieces in the collection it was part of, “Cogwheels” and “A Fool’s Life,” which are about a mind disintegrating into the backdrop of a dense urban environment. But probably the real, and more lasting, influence was the language of those two stories, not so much Akutagawa’s as his translators’, Cid Corman and Will Peterson, who had him speak like a midcentury bohemian Kyoto expat.
Some of my favourite writing in the novel – and where the weirdness gets dialled up a few notches – is when protagonist Cheng-Ming visits a temple in the countryside. Is this temple based on an actual place?
No. It probably came from my reading Pu Sung-ling. There’s that same haunted temple that appears in every story in Liaozhai