about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Passion of Woo & Isolde
A Review of The Passion of Woo & Isolde
by Jennifer Tseng

Spencer Dew

These short tales are about past lives and the past as we move on from but also always with, lugging it along with us like the pair of awkwardly shaped and heavy suitcases one character here struggles to bring with him as he leaves his homeland to move to a new world. “Together they were impossible to carry further,” but just as impossible would be to travel on without them—the impossibility of their burden is a necessary aspect of the future. A kind of wounded, consuming consideration of the past—whether in the form of paranormal Polaroids or the work of the temporary museum employee, “whose job it was to rewind tapes of the audio tour”—plays a key role here. In the case of the temporary worker, the museum guard who works alongside her realizes, after weeks of conversation, “that he had been her widow in another life,” reliving that loss while confronting the impossibility of his own life, now, (re)married and living (reasonably enough) as if the dead would never reappear, which, of course, they always do, even if not always so literally, sitting at a table at the margins of “an exhibit of angels,” pressing the same button over and over, day after day.

Memory might even be said, in these tales, to be a kind of language—indecipherable and yet jarring, like the whir of a cassette spooling backward, stopping with a hard click. Tseng is also interested in the accumulation of lies (one story deals with a husband who “likes his lies phrased in the positive. And he likes them small, about the size of snowflakes. Each one different, impossible to catch and with the tendency to pile up”) and, relatedly, to issues of translation. Just as, in the story about lies, Tseng offers us a typographical snowdrift, words piled into a dune shape at the bottom of a page, so, too, Tseng gives us worlds of typographical proliferation through the eyes of those foreign to the systems of meaning evoked and thus awash in a kind of visual Babel. One of the aforementioned suitcases is so heavy because of the dictionaries it contains. Another story here involves an act of lovemaking interrupted by the incomprehensibility of the body’s nonverbal sounds: “What was the definition of Oh in English?” our protagonists wonder, when such a sound is released by the women to whom he is devoting his attentions. “He felt the urge to consult his portable dictionary, which he knew to be hidden in the pocket of his trousers that lay folded on the pillow next to his face.” As with the always-present past, however, Tseng holds here that ambiguity is essential to communication. It is, in fact, the suspense of meaning which “lets us live.”

Official Jennifer Tseng Web Site
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