Book Review: Cecilia by K-Ming Chang

June 11, 2024

Reading Cecilia is a surreal experience. Not only because the story feels like it’s being narrated by a Salvador Dalí painting come to life, but also because of the stylistic weird of K-Ming Chang’s prose. Vindictive crows, fish swimming out of people’s mouths and directionless, time-bending buses are only the beginning of this story about obsession and change. Cecilia appeals not only to lovers of the strange, but to anyone who’s had the impulse to quietly stalk their high school crush online. The novella explores how our childhood obsessions, confronted with adult reality, can create conflicting desires with a surreal physicality.

The narrator, Seven, is a cleaner at a chiropractor’s who reconnects with Cecilia, her schoolyard infatuation. That sets off a dreamlike chain of events blending the past and present together that’s both amusing and disturbing. For example, Seven describes the jealousy she felt as a child when Cecilia once showed her a dish of dead slugs she’d trapped.

When we checked on them in the evening, there were dozens of slugs drowned in the foam, their bodies fizzing into snot. I thought those dishes were filled with her piss. And when I looked down at those slugs solved by her salt, I felt a sudden envy, a hatred illuminating my belly. I wanted to bring those dishes to my lips and slurp them clean, disappear them inside of me. It was unfair that the slugs had lived inside her before dying.

The physicality here, and throughout the novella, is arresting. But Chang manages to keep it closely tied to the protagonist’s intellectual and emotional understanding. What goes in and come out of our bodies is generally Seven’s starting point for expressing thoughts and emotion, a kind of philosophical anchor. Her reflections are often reactions to someone spitting, urinating, defecating or vomiting. It’s raw and sometimes stomach-churning—I don’t recommend reading this book over a nice dinner… or a mediocre dinner—but there’s a savage beauty to it as well.

This liquid obsession doesn’t just show youthful passion. It questions how we understand adult desire as well when it opens up a time-bending bus journey adult Seven and Cecilia take together.

I turned and extended my hand, as if she were my child and needed help climbing the stairs. It was instinctual, reaching out to her. She stared at the cup of my hand, then bent her head and drooled into it. A jewel jiggled in the center of my palm. A nickel I didn’t solicit […] A familiar urge filled me, and I knew I would not wipe the palm of my hand on anything: I would sieve her saliva through my skin, summon it up my own throat. I thought of the handkerchiefs Ama sold at bus stops. Even before I was born, she predicted my uncleanness. From the past, she told me to wipe my palms.

So many fluids are tied to desire throughout this book that the absence of sexual ones is particularly noticeable. It’s almost as if urine and spit are their replacements. How does this exchange of fluids affect our reactions to the text? Desire-laden scenes featuring urine, spit and mucus clash with our sensibilities, and certainly those of her Ama, so much more than passionate ejaculations would. Chang is forcing us to consider why. She pushes beyond bodily taboos, neatly pitting ideas of clean versus unclean against each other.

In an earlier scene, Seven asks her mother why she always covers their couch in towels.

I asked Ma if it wasn’t defeating the point, covering something to keep it clean: if it was always sheathed, how would anyone know if it was clean or not? And what was the point of having a nice sofa if it was going to stay unseen? But Ma shook her head and said it wasn’t about seeing. It’s about knowing what you keep clean, Ma said. You don’t have to see what’s underneath. You don’t have to touch something to love it.

Seven rebels against this philosophy. She doesn’t just want to touch, she wants to consume, to “summon it up in [her] own throat.” But her interests don’t limit themselves to the traditional romantic fixations: skin, hair, eyes. She wants to see what’s underneath. For her, there’s no knowing without seeing. She fantasizes about absorbing what comes from under Cecilia’s skin. For her there’s no loving without the deepest possible contact. Seven’s passion fluidifies the terms, clean and unclean, until one pearls into the other. She fantasizes of it as an adolescent and as an adult. Her awareness of the attraction’s meanings may have changed, but the fantasy hasn’t.

The book makes interesting points on memory’s influence on desire. The past and present of Seven’s fixation on Cecilia merge as the novella progresses. Her reaction to seeing Cecilia again is telling. “[Cecilia’s] was a face I had dusted off in my memory so frequently that seeing it now, in the present, made me wonder if this one was a bootleg, if the original had been destroyed to keep me from corrupting it.” In a way, the narrator creates a double, superimposing her memories of the child Cecilia over the adult. The current Cecilia is a clever copy, but not the original.

Chang’s use of narrative point of view subtly doubles down on this doubling. While Seven narrates the novella, she refers to Cecilia in alternating third and second person blocks, each new section switching between one and the other. In a lesser author’s hands this would come across as weak control over narrative point of view, but here it creates a spiral of narrative doublings for the reader. In referring to Cecilia as she, the reader is her audience. She’s talking to us. It gives the narrative the bones of a confessional love story where Seven asks us to understand the depths of emotion Cecilia inspires. But then Cecilia is the second person you. Seven’s audience is no longer the reader but Cecilia herself. This pronoun switch to you doesn’t just create a doubling, rather a tripling. Firstly, the reader can see themselves in you, reading Seven’s word as if they themselves were Cecilia. Or the reader becomes a voyeur who’s spying on Seven talking to Cecilia. Or wait, it could also be like reading a kind of correspondence from Seven to present day Cecilia, a modern epistolary novel. Wait again, is the correspondence supposed to be in the present or past? Is this actually another past Cecilia? Is this a quadrupling? A quintupling? Chang set a wonderful trap, a doubling rabbit hole where you’ll find an infinity of Cecilias.

Passion and obsession are easy to sanitize; and, most of the time, when authors confront that problem, the resulting stories rely on unique depictions of sex. For the record, that is absolutely not a complaint! Even the winners of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award are often great (and still kind of sexy) reads. But it’s rare to see an author that somehow achieves those same ends, not in portraying graphic sex, but in showing us graphic bodies. This physicality teases us with a desire to assign metaphors and interpret what all this spit, piss, shit and vomit really represent. But Chang seems to ask us to approach these passages, not looking to interpret, rather to feel their effects, their erotics, if you will (thank you Susan Sontag). Though it’s certainly not for the tame of heart or stomach, Cecilia makes an elegant and surprisingly beautiful addition to queer literature.

Publisher: Coffee House Press

Publication date: May 21, 2024

Reviewed by David Lewis


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved