Thu, Jul 18, 2019 - Page 14 News List

BOOK REVIEW: Not up to scratch

Our book reviewer appeals to Eric Mader to drop the surreal and absurdist style and return to the satiric realism of his earlier works

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Minor Scratches by Eric Mader

I have generally been full of praise for Eric Mader’s publications, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t find much to enjoy in his latest book, Minor Scratches.

It opens with a meditation on US gun laws based on the author’s nauseating adolescent experiences with pellet guns. He ends up lamenting all the animals and birds he killed. This is a sane and honest chapter, but after that sanity at least moves onto the back burner, and we are launched into the zany world of Mader at his most unapproachable.

There are narratives, some written by his Taipei students, in response to a bizarre sentence that contains a word the Taipei Times can’t print. There are several pages in Chinese. And there’s a story, some 65 pages long, about an ant in amber that manages to escape, and some anti-aging skin cream called ReJuve.

In a previous book, Idiocy, Ltd [reviewed in the Taipei Times on Aug. 15, 2015], Mader admitted to the influence of an early Soviet absurdist called Daniil Kharms. These items, however, were mixed with traditionally sober pieces, some of which I thought were extraordinarily good. Unfortunately there are no such items here, though the one on US guns, and by implication US gun laws, was certainly interesting.

I suspect I will not be alone in my aversion to this new book. The problem with the bizarre as a style, in my view, is that it lacks soul. And it seems to me that there is no soul, and no heart, in this book. This is strange, seeing that Mader is nowadays a Catholic, though there’s no reason why Catholics shouldn’t be surrealists as well.

This brings me to the definition of art that Mader offers at the end of the book: “a dialectic of mimesis and defamiliarization.” What this means, colloquially, is an inquiry (dialectic) into the imitation (mimesis) of the world we see around us, but rendered unfamiliar.

Publication Notes


By Eric Mader

207 pages


paperback : US

Thus, we all recognize a human body, but it’s made unfamiliar in the hands of, say, the painters Picasso or Francis Bacon. Musical instruments, similarly, imitate the human voice but change it in subtle ways. War and Peace presents us with recognizable human types, but in a unique and unrepeatable situation.

I found this definition of art very persuasive and I’m grateful to Mader for having come up with it. But unfortunately the pieces in the rest of the book manifestly don’t conform to the definition’s high aspirations.

Mader’s history as a writer seems to be in — what I hope is — temporary decline. He’s a Taipei resident and teacher, and someone who narrowly missed becoming a professional academic. He started off with A Taipei Mutt [reviewed on Dec. 14, 2003], a comic novel that had a lot to say about Taiwan in general. Then came Heretic Days [reviewed on Feb. 28, 2012], a collection of short pieces with many outstanding items, such as one on William Blake and the Muggletonians, a small Protestant sect that may have influenced him.

Idiocy, Ltd followed. Here the surreal element — if that’s the right word, and it may not be — made its first appearance, but was mixed in with many sober pieces such as “Making the Grade in Naples, Florida,” where the truly awful world of the suburban US was exposed with masterly incisiveness.

Now, in Minor Scratches (which Mader at one point intended to call “Minor Scratches: A Taiwan Miscellany”) the “surreal” has taken over almost completely.

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