This was a strange one, and I read it very fast because I had to return it to the library. I’m not sure I did myself a service, reading it so quickly, because it only added to the dream-like quality of the book. It was confusing and oddly structured, and I didn’t really take the time to sink into it.
Notes of a Crocodile is a coming-of-age novel about a young Taiwanese woman, Lazi. It takes place over the course of her four college years, and primarily concerns her two love affairs with two different women, neither of them healthy or especially happy. Lazi’s sexuality is a source of endless pain for her; she struggles against her desire for women, and is often consumed with self-loathing. It’s a dark read.
Much of the book was told through conversations between Lazi and the women she dates, as well as between Lazi and her crew of friends–all of them young queer people struggling with self-acceptance, and many of them in abusive and/or exhausting, unstable relationships. There were few scenes, and even less description. The conversations–about the nature of love and suffering, about self-doubt, about feeling alone and wrestling with sexuality–felt somewhat dry. It was hard to picture the characters involved in these intense discussions. There was a lot of telling in this book, which made it feel floaty, to me–like I was drifting along from idea to idea, emotion to emotion, conversation to conversation, never truly present in the character’s lives.
The parts I liked best were the most experimental sections. Woven throughout Lazi’s more straightforward narrative is the story of a crocodile (presumably Lazi herself). Crocodiles are suddenly popping up all over the city, and the public is fascinated by them. They walk around wearing human suits, and they become an immediate news sensation. They are revered and obsessed over, but also objectified and fetishized. This one particular crocodile is lonely, and feels utterly hopeless, convinced she will never find another like her. Everyone is obsessed with crocodiles, and yet she feels alone and often worthless, even among her own kind, whom she meets at secret underground bars and gathering places.
This crocodile story is a beautiful, painful, and insightful metaphor for what it feels like to be an other, and in this case, the specific experience of being marked as an other because of queerness. So often, people marked as “other” are used as symbols, but are profoundly misunderstood and never offered respect. Mainstream culture selects the bits of otherness people find interesting or “exotic” or trendy, and exploits those traits. At the same time, those same people consistently disrespect, harm and perpetrate violence against whatever marginalized communities they claim to be imitating. Imitation becomes fetishization. This leads to dangerous and deeply problematic thinking.
I don’t think I spent enough time with this novel to understand all the nuances of the crocodile metaphor, or how it fits into the larger cultural context of queer kids coming of age in Taiwan in the late 1980s. But I found these sections rather brilliant, and each time the book dipped back into the crocodile’s story, I was immediately riveted. The details were extraordinary, strange and creative, but also obvious enough as a metaphor for queerness that they were powerful in their strangeness. It certainly got me thinking, despite my sense of disconnection form the novel as a whole.
Overall, this novel was full of queer suffering, at times disturbing, and not at all hopeful. I found it hard to access and at the end of it, wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t hate it, either. I almost wish it had been straight-up magical, told entirely from the point of view of the crocodile. It was a lonely but truthful book. As a novel, it did not hold my attention or spark much of anything in my heart, but as something to study and think about, I found it fascinating.