Book Review: No Touching by Aileen Deng

This book leaves me with one burning question. I have got to know: What the heck is the deal with cherry pies?

The main character mentions cherry pies about 20 times in a 237 page book (I skimmed every single page to count, but I was tired so I am sure I am slightly off), way more often than any other mention of food. There are an additional four or five mentions of cherries not in pies, which means that if they were evenly spaced, you’d get a mention of cherries about every ten pages. Now, it’s one thing to have a motif, but the way that this one was implemented was awkwardly inappropriate. The main character seems to have this weird obsession with cherry pies that arguably borders on some kind of sexual fetishism. I’m not kidding. Check out this passage:

“Mom goes to get the cherry pie from the oven. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Homemade cherry pies are the best. The sweet smell grows stronger as Mom brings it out and cuts us each a big piece. I seem to be getting high just from the sight of this treat. As soon as I get my piece, I dig in shamelessly. The cherries taste perfect as the warm juice gushes out. The crust is crispy but blends in softly with the filling. I put one cherry aside to save for later as the ultimate dessert. I’m having ten orgasms at the same time.” (page 74-75)

There is no qualification that Tiffany is using such sexual language as a joke, so it seems that she is working herself into a genuine sexual frenzy, here. Now of course this isn’t what every mention of cherry pies is like. Most of it is stuff like this, from page 72: “Dinner is delicious as usual. My parents are great cooks. I am very excited about the cherry pie in the oven.” (No kidding!) But she doesn’t actually introduce the motif by telling the reader that cherry pies are her favorite (actually on page 194 she says her favorite is cake and ice cream… oh really?), she just starts mentioning them a lot, in rather inappropriate moments. For example, upon hanging out with a guy she’s only very recently met, she begins mentally making a list of their future dates, and the only item on this list that she bothers to mention is to “bake a cherry pie together” (page 122). I can only conclude that cherry pies are supposed to symbolize SOMETHING, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, and Tiffany never elucidates us.

Traditionally, of course, cherries and cherry pies are symbols for the vagina, loss of virginity, and promiscuous women. Food more generally is also often sexualized. Given this history and the overtly sexual way in which the pies are described, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate to pick as a motif for a character who is supposedly asexual. What does it symbolize? What purpose does it serve? It seems only to misdirect the reader to make a more sexual interpretation of the main character, perhaps to think she is not really asexual, but just repressed or has some kind of sexual dysfunction. I assume we are NOT supposed to make such an interpretation, since the book is actually marketed towards asexuals, and the author seems genuine in her desire to portray an asexual character. However, it is not easy to take this character seriously. Because… well, I’ll just come out and say it: Tiffany is insane.

It takes a seriously unhinged person to imagine that your pillow is your imaginary boyfriend, make up a detailed back story about this boyfriend, and make out with your pillow-boyfriend so often that the seams on the pillowcase actually begin to come apart. And then, upon getting a real-life date, to feel like a guilty cheater for not telling him about the imaginary boyfriend. How are we supposed to sympathize with this character? Honestly? She seems to be a psychotic loser. I may be asexual too, but that is no basis for feeling empathy for an unlikeable character (much like mutual asexuality is no basis for forming a relationship with someone who is otherwise incompatible), especially when that character is somewhat questionably asexual in the first place; if the book had been marketed differently, I would assume that this is a classic case of an unreliable narrator, because of her penchant for lies and very shallow level of self-examination springing from her unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths (she thinks that she is sane because she knows that she is insane… how does that work?). Instead, I will assume that this is a case of the author not doing enough research. Amusingly, there is a little cafe in this book where asexuals go to hang out, and a couple of other asexuals just walk up to the main character and ask her if she is asexual the very first time she goes there, with no prior planning on the internet. Wish it were that easy to meet other asexuals in real life!

I really dislike the way that asexuality is defined in this book as a lack of sexual DESIRE, not attraction, and equated with the stereotype that asexuals don’t or can’t enjoy sex. That’s a cop-out definition which ignores the existence of people like me, who are asexual but CAN enjoy sex. In fact, the whole character seems to be based on the stereotypical idea of what an asexual person is like, with an especially negative twist. Tiffany is insecure, socially awkward and even succumbs to an anti-sexual superiority complex:

“I evaluate my asexuality to figure out whether it’s done more good or bad to my life. On the surface, it doesn’t seem too appealing. It’s almost as if I were built differently. I don’t feel what I think I should feel. However, this misfortune sometimes makes me feel better than everyone else. In a weird way, I’m above the level of needing physical pleasure, which is philosophically ranked the lowest in human nature by Plato. Material possessions and bodily pleasures are shallow and mindless, having the power to slowly destroy the human race, to reduce us to nothing but slaves to non-living objects, and to weaken our noble mentality and willpower. What is most sublime and should be focused on is human knowledge, which inspires the never-ending quest for information to enlighten our mind and soul.

“I feel like a saint now. I am not degraded by desperate, sexual urges. I am virtuously unaffected by the most basic human need. I am a goddess. I stop myself before becoming convinced that I possess magical powers to heal the poor human sex slaves around me.” (page 89)

Imagine what sexual people would think of asexuals if they read this book! I’d also like to point out that Tiffany masturbates (she even says she can get herself off within seconds!), and that eating food (for enjoyment, which she clearly does) is just as much a “physical pleasure” as having sex, so it is incorrect for her to claim she is above the level of physical pleasure. And there are tons of scenes with her eating way more food than the situation warrants or fantasizing about eating lots of food; she does truly seem to need cherry pies as some sort of emotional comfort. There is no mention of her having a fast metabolism or anything like that, and there is never any physical description given of her besides the fact that she is Chinese and other people say she is pretty. And she says at one point that she feels “a hundred pounds lighter,” so I suppose that we are meant to assume that she weighs a lot, too. Which I think is also part of the stereotypical idea of what asexuals look like.

I also have very little sympathy for Tiffany because she seems to get teary-eyed about EVERYTHING. In fact, all of the characters do, except for Peter (who is happy all the time). The author seems to rely on tears and cliches as a shortcut for showing emotional pain, when really, people don’t act like that. And this truly cripples the book. All of the characters’ behaviors are extreme, to the point that they can’t be taken seriously; however, I think these would be plausible situations if they were toned down somewhat (except for the imaginary boyfriend part). This book actually would work really really well as a comedy. As it is, it’s very funny, but it’s funny in about the same way that The Room is funny. If this book, as it is now, were actually meant to be a comedy, though, I would feel a bit insulted because it would come dangerously close to satirizing asexuals. However, I think it was really meant to be a positive portrayal, but the author just didn’t quite make it to a level of deep emotional honesty with regard to the characters’ actions.

The fact that this book was self-published speaks volumes about its quality. It reads like a rough draft. What it really needs is revision: the attention of a ruthless editor and some asexual beta readers would have done wonders for it. It really does have potential, because it’s a good set-up. The storyline and plot twists are pretty great. It needed to be critiqued by an intelligent and thoughtful group of people knowledgeable about the process of writing, who wouldn’t sugar-coat things and just stroke the author’s ego several times before being published, pushing each successive revision to the next level. I feel somewhat bad for probably really damaging the author’s ego as it is, but harsh criticism really goes with the territory when you put yourself out there like this, and I think it’s more important to be completely honest in a review. I really, really wanted to like this book… but unfortunately, I just couldn’t. However, on the positive side, I did greatly enjoy the author’s sense of humor, and I think she has a knack for comedic situations. Dialogue especially is her strong point. I hope that she will hone this talent and keep on writing.

In conclusion, I have very high standards. I give it 1 star out of 5.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: No Touching by Aileen Deng

  1. *enlarges text before reading*
    Wow, I didn’t even know there was a fiction book about asexuality.

    I suppose this is why we should really take as great a role as possible in all media representations, because we can’t tell how much research other people do.

    It’s a shame the book didn’t work out. Even from the quotations provided, I felt a sense of amateurness. I very much hope that this book isn’t compared against professionally-published and well-advertised books as some sort of evidence that asex doesn’t sell.

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      • Yeah, I’ve got that on my to-read list still! :)

        I check AVEN’s home page every week to read the digest, and I saw the announcement a couple weeks ago that there had been a new book featuring a character who is explicitly asexual published. I guess it slipped under most people’s radars, since I think that may have been the week that there was a bunch of data lost? Since I was ordering textbooks at the time from amazon anyway, and it was pretty cheap, I ordered that one too. I think it was worth the money if only for the fact that it’s hilarious!

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      • Ily, how do you know that the author is ace? I tried looking for information on her, but I couldn’t find anything outside of the kind of abbreviated author biographies featured in book reviews or articles about books.

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  2. Do you know if the author identifies as asexual or professes to know any asexuals? From what you said about her depiction, the most reasonable answer might be no – but even members of a group can depict it … stupidly.

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    • That is definitely true. I wondered that too, so I tried googling her but all I could find was her Twitter account and a post she made on AVEN, which wasn’t very informative. I’m assuming that she doesn’t identify as asexual herself, because she has posted only once on AVEN, which was to promote her book, and the account was created the same day she joined. There’s nothing else out there that I could find connecting her name or username with asexuality. It’s possible that she could have made up a brand new username just to promote her book, but if she was already established as a member of the community I think it would make more sense to rely on that status to promote the book. She very well might know someone who is asexual in real life, but if so, I would guess she probably relied too much on that one person for information and didn’t do a whole lot of reading up on asexuality on the internet. Or she could have been a lurker on AVEN for a while, but not long enough to gain a stupid filter to tell what’s accurate and what’s not about asexuality. Which you really really need, if you’re going to be gathering information about asexuality from those forums, unfortunately.

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      • “Which you really really need, if you’re going to be gathering information about asexuality from those forums, unfortunately.”

        Truer words have rarely been spoken. It’s unfortunate that she didn’t portray asexuality more accurately – even having the “I am superior!” passage might have worked if the author had worked to balance it out with something like objective disapproval (in the same way that authors writing as serial killers don’t endorse serial killing, but… more accepting of asexuality). I do wish there were more YA books about asexuality (and books in general, but mostly YA), since really the whole of YA is focused on the process of coming into yourself, and there are scads of books on virtually every other non-standard sexuality (I’ve read books about transgender teenagers, gay, bisexual, people who grew up with non-standard parents, transvestism, etc.).

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    • I plan to, but I have to create a new account for it so that my family members won’t discover my blog (some of them are really abusive, so I don’t need them knowing about my life any more than they already do, it’d just give them more ammo to hurl back at me). And then order something and wait for the order to be completed, because Amazon doesn’t allow you to just post reviews. Which I suppose is a good business policy for them, but it’s really kind of stupid because you don’t have to have ordered the product from them to have it.

      But rest assured, I will post it there when I can! :)

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  3. Pingback: “No Touching” Review « Procrastination Embodied

  4. Pingback: Confirmed asexual characters in fiction | The Asexual Agenda

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