RED MASK | Jessica May Lin
SPOILERS BELOW, AS USUAL. READ THE STORY FIRST.
There is a lot going on in this fantastic, emotionally charged story by Jessica May Lin. “Red Mask” has its feet planted in two different speculative camps (let’s not say ‘genres,’ which seems too compartmental a term): sci-fi and ghost stories. While it might be unusual to have futuristic technology and a folkloric ghost-presence working in tandem, the juxtaposition works incredibly well–thanks to the author’s painstaking world-building (on both the futuristic and supernatural sides of the story) and the matter-of-factness with which our narrator depicts this far-out world.
We are in a (not-too-distant) future Shanghai, albeit with ghosts. Like any urbanized nation you can think of, this world is marked by a crushing economic disparity, and much of “Neo-” Shanghai’s populace lives in towering slums fashioned out of plastic living compartments whose dimensions are pretty close to coffin-size.
Our heroine Xiao You lives in just such a coffin-unit (alone, now that her canine metaphor Happiness has run away and refuses to come back). She is a dancer at the Green Dream, an opium den/go-go bar that caters to wealthy foreigners.
We and our underclass heroine confront several layers of conflict over the course of this story. As a member of the city’s working poor, Xiao You spends most of her monthly salary trying to score drinking water from the violent gangs who control the community’s water supply. On top of this economic survival story, we have the emotional conflict triggered by the suicide of her fellow dancer Feng Guniang, plus the detective-story tension brought about by the ongoing serial-murder of her fellow dancers. This piece is successful at each level: as a class-struggle narrative, as a feminist ghost story, and yes, as a work of sci-fi noir as well.
There’s a lot going on in this piece.
Among the most interesting and disturbing elements of the story are the various manipulations/mutilations of the human form. Examples include this society’s practice of partially de-ribbing its go-go dancers to allow for maximum bendability (a condition with other practical benefits as well, though these go undiscussed, tastefully); the Green Dream’s Boss has a video display embedded in his forehead, for advertising purposes and so forth; oh yeah, and the villain murdering exotic dancers throughout the city is also peeling off their faces, a practice that seems like a sick collection ritual before we learn that these faces retail for tidy sums (and not even on the black market; our protagonist finds them for sale at a local shop).
Pretty morbid stuff, but death and mortality are far more negotiable here in New China. Our late friend Feng Guniang, for instance, is dead but still semi-corporeal, even in ghost form. Per ghost story convention, ghosts are sufferers, tethered to the material world by past wrongs and lingering anguish.
When Xiao You gets her own face ripped off (I told ya there’d be spoilers…), she does not, as one would expect, simply die. Rather, she discovers that there is a lower social caste in her society than that of slum-dwelling lounge dancer; deprived of her beauty, she becomes invisible, Untouchable. Tragedy piles atop tragedy, in this story.
Economic and gender oppression remain unresolved crises in this piece, and the various evildoers (the capitalists, the gangsters, the violent opportunists) enjoy impunity. Yet the author skillfully avoids letting Xiao You’s story bog down in eternal woe. One reason for this is the richness of her cityscape–its magical, cultural, and sci-fi components are so abundant that the reading experience is one of continual wonder, despite its intense grittiness and bleakness.
The story’s conclusion is weirdly hopeful. Stripped of her beauty, our heroine becomes a ghost like her friend–invisible and disconnected but somehow freer as a result. When her friend gives our protagonist the titular Red Mask (yet another example of body modification), her newly constructed identity allows hope for a better life (“Happiness will come back so I may clean the lice from behind his ears”). Importantly, this mask was fashioned by a friend and adopted voluntarily–not through societal coercion, not inflicted upon her by a man.
The narrator’s concluding words are undeniably optimistic:
I’ll use my earnings from the Green Dream to buy canned eel… Maybe we’ll move to a bigger capsule, one with a TV for us to watch English cartoons on.
I suppose it’s up to the reader to decide if the protagonist is ultimately empowered by her survival/adaptation–or merely submitting to the delusion of eventual prosperity within the rigged game that is her city.