(Les Figues, 2014)
Sawako Nakayasu’s tender and diminutive book, The Ants, is a series of ninety-three small-scale prose reflections on the sometimes miniature life struggles and desires of the Formicidae family, also known as ants. An ant’s life is its own, but as an eusocial insect, an ant leads a life superintended by the larger, organized life structures of its colony. With its labor divisions, cooperative offspring care, and overlapping generations, an ant colony sets up parallels with human society. The Ants inverts the scale of this ant-human comparison. What happens when a common human feeling, say love, envy, or the desire to organize your kitchen utensil drawer, gets inserted into the body of an ant? It feels gently and absurdly outsized—much as it does in life.
In one loosely incandescent anecdote, two ants cross a human torso in hopes of finding the true love that the other unnamed ant embodies in particular ant-like ways. The anecdote does not end with ant reunion. In another accounting, two colonies of ants, one belonging to a husband and the other to a wife, are summoned to divvy up LPs, a couch and television in the wake of a divorce. The ants go to work, and at the end of the day, the couple arrives to “find that the couch has been broken down into small chunks, neat little chunks.” Nakayasu engages the gentle paradoxes of human life, particularly those moments when the feelings feel disproportionate to vessel or world. Of course, none of this comes as a surprise. From the standpoint of an ant, humans are insects, their desires no less ephemeral, redundant, inconclusive, and absurd than the feelings that humans might wishfully ascribe to an ant. And yet, as the reader realizes soon enough, the life world of an ant—with its “maximum capacity,” its “Tennis, cilantro, […] Mings. Monk” is not imagined at all; it’s the one we live in.
TAN LIN is the author of over twelve books, most recently, of Heath Course Pak, Insomnia and the Aunt, and 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 The Joy of Cooking. His non-fiction writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Art in America, Artforum, Purple, Cabinet, and Triple Canopy. He is the recipient of a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant, and a Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writing Grant. His art and video works have been screened at numerous museums, including MoMA/PS 1, Yale Art Museum, New Museum, and the Drawing Center. 7 Controlled Vocabularies received the Association for Asian American Studies Award for Poetry/Literature. He is currently working on a novel, Our Feelings Were Made By Hand.