The Self-Published 1935 Novel That Broke All the Rules

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 11:30 AM

Thanks but No Thanks but Thanks

H.T. Tsiang’s self-published “American epic” The Hanging on Union Square is back and just as wonderfully bizarre as ever.

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Perhaps this is what has driven him mad. Over a chilling, misadventure-filled night adrift in the city, he encounters the winners and the losers, the weird and the depraved: screwball book critics, dirty old men, a self-obsessed poet yearning for a connection (“I wish your taste would be like mine—/ We could just be sixty-nine”), disgraced millionaires, comically selfless Communists, the shadow government playing the rest of us like puppets. Nut even encounters Tsiang himself. The depiction is far from flattering: Tsiang floats through his own novel as an irritating and obnoxious crank trying to convince someone to buy a weathered copy of his previous self-published opus, China Red.

Suffice it to say that Nut eventually sheds the cynicism he initially feels toward the cause of the “masses.” Yet joining the party rank-and-file doesn’t suit him. His growing sense of abjection seems to have a euphoric, liberating effect on him. Freed from his desire to change his own situation, he aspires instead to change the world. The last few chapters of Hanging, as Nut comes to accept his fate, are hysterical and absurd, yet strangely moving.

Anyone who self-publishes an “American Epic” is worth investigating, especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time for a Hanging reprint. The recent “Occupy” movement suggests a return of the populist rage that spurred Tsiang’s times, reminding us of the need for new ways to communicate with the masses. Tsiang’s desire to appoint himself Everyman—to yell and argue and rage on behalf of all downtrodden brothers and sisters—might as well be happening in 2012 today; the same applies to his ultimate failure. Perhaps Nut’s increasing darkness doesn’t suggest a way forward. But the quality of his desperation—a proxy for Tsiang’s, perhaps—still hold. We live in a time when self-publishing is no longer a last resort, and a contemporary reader will probably be more hospitable to Hanging’s stubborn weirdness than the readers and publishers of Tsiang’s time. This isn’t to say that we’ve caught up to Tsiang—this would imply that he possessed some coherent vision of the world—just that his manic collision of ideas and feelings seems deeply familiar, as does his dense mix of irony and earnestness, his experimental playfulness and all-at-once frustration that nobody is listening.

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Following the pages of rejections that open Hanging’s first edition, Tsiang offered a brief note addressed directly to the reader. “The writer takes this opportunity of conveying his deep appreciation of the kindness of the various critics and publishers who had read his manuscript,” he writes with a seeming sincerity. But maybe they can just agree to disagree—this is the book he wants to write, even if nobody wants to publish it. “Stubbornly or nuttily,” he explains, he is compelled to advance his vision in its purest, uncut form, outside of the publishing industry that enforces our sense of the mainstream. Failure may be inevitable; perhaps he even courts it. But he is unafraid. After all, “the reaction of the masses can’t be wrong.”

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The Hanging on Union Square by H.T. Tsiang, edited by Floyd Cheung. Kaya Press.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.