Book Report: Spent Bullets
By Kevin Wang
Jan 30, 2024

The hard-working geniuses of Spent Bullets ought to have ideal lives by the standards of any meritocracy. After attending the best schools in Taiwan, they gain employment in big tech, recognized around the world as the pinnacle of career prestige, but we do not see the rewards for their achievements. Instead, the book is focused on the grotesque contortions of psyches shaped by such hyper-competitive systems, where one’s capacity for suffering is among the most important measures of worth.


Set mainly in Taipei and the San Francisco Bay Area through the past two decades, Terao Tetsuya’s debut work of fiction consists of nine linked stories (or chapters) with a recurring set of characters and converging plot lines. The stories switch between different first-person perspectives, and it is not until the eighth chapter that their identities are all confirmed. A re-reading of the book, which is under 250 pages, highlights the author’s ability to balance between delicately withheld information and stunning revelations.


“Terao Tetsuya” is a pen name inspired by characters from two manga series: Over Drive’s Terao Kōichi, who supports the main characters in their ambitions to be cycling champions, and Kuroko Tetsuya from Kuroko’s Basketball, who is content to be a “shadow” that helps his teammates shine. This combination might hint at how Terao the author sees his role, having experienced proximity to genius as a student on the competitive programming team at NTU and as a Google software engineer.


The black hole at the center of his book is Chieh-Heng, the prodigy who can show up three hours late to a programming competition and still win. His peers enjoy remarking on his comical aloofness and incomprehensible quirks: Chieh-Heng prefers his yogurt unsweetened and with a pinch of salt. He only keeps one song on his MP3 player, which he listens to on repeat. In the three chapters told from his perspective, we see Chieh-Heng’s own bafflement at the neurotypical expectations for socializing and emotional expression. Chieh-Heng never finds a sense of belonging, but it’s not for lack of trying. He bends himself and diminishes his individuality to try to fit in. Within the same week, he goes from an ex-gay support group to a meet-up for gay Taiwanese men in the Bay Area, but he fails to connect because of other people’s fear, misunderstanding, resentment, and obsessive adoration of him.


Mostly, Chieh-Heng does what school and work expect of him. His most vital deviation from these rigid systems is his years-long sadomasochistic power exchange with classmate Wu Yi-Hsiang, a tormentor turned lover who offers a thin tether to reality. Their relationship establishes an early and continuing conflict. Wu Yi-Hsiang is fascinated by Chieh-Heng’s inscrutable intelligence and, with an anxious need to please, carefully tends to Chieh-Heng’s desire to be debased and made into nothing. But Wu Yi-Hsiang is also frustrated by Chieh-Heng’s apathy and seeming inability to communicate emotionally. As their sex grows increasingly meaningless, the sub is shown to hold the real power over the dom.


None of these dynamics are stated directly, and a different reader may come up with different conclusions. While Chieh-Heng and Wu Yi-Hsiang are both first-person narrators, their stories are recounted from a cold distance. Such a detached style reflects how they have been trained to be calm under pressure from a young age. Their subtle dialogues are aligned with the “iceberg theory”, which leaves much unsaid while gesturing toward certain truths. The prose often turns to qualities of light and shadow. The California sun is “bright and vapid”, and in another instance, “orange like free detergent from the on-site laundry room”. In the heart of a desert city, “spotlights of innumerable colors” give form “for a few fleeting seconds to jets of water that have no business being here in the first place”. At times, the lens zooms in: zippers on a fly are interlocked tooth by tooth “like a greedy snake biting its own tail”, and a face is adorned with “a row of freckles like an inkjet printer ad”. Partly for this cinematic quality, Spent Bullets is now being adapted into a movie by Each Other Films, a company based in Taipei. The sense of uncertainty in the visual descriptions also highlights the theme of how impossible it is to truly understand another person.


The steady, deadpan sentences also allow for unexpected strikes of humor. In the opening story, a boy can’t stop scratching at his itchy face even though he is about to get peed on by his classmates in a rite of humiliation: “Dead skin flaked off his skin as though he were a giant shiitake mushroom dispersing spores into the wind.” Later in the book, after saying their wedding vows in English at a notary in Vegas, a gay man declares in Chinese to his newlywed lesbian wife, “I don’t love you.” She replies, “Me too.”


Much of this comedy is born out of the absurdity of striving. After visiting a classmate hospitalized for her suicide attempt, Wu Yi-Hsiang vows to make a lot of money as compensation for their lost youths and self-destructive habits. But despite all the six-figure salaries and stock options that come their way, there is no description of indulgence in luxury other than a pool with added sea salt to imitate the smell of vacation and a strip club in which “grease from one face is smeared onto another” via the dancer’s breasts. To save money, characters would rather drive than fly from San Francisco to Vegas. Instead of gourmet meals, they eat at Panda Express: “Chinese food as pictured in the American imagination”. The most pride a character ever feels is when they snag a free washing machine at the office, having stuck an “out of order” note on it the night before.


Aside from the thrill of gun ownership and a heightened sense of social alienation, the characters behave no differently in America than they would in Taiwan. In Tsung-su’s short story “Want to Fly” (1976), an important text in the lineage of tongzhi literature, the Taiwanese protagonist goes to study in America, excited by its promises of liberation, only to find himself becoming an exploited laborer. Three-and-a-half decades later, the characters of Spent Bullets must have no illusions about how Silicon Valley would be a mere extension of the oppressive machinery that they’d endured all along.


On their annual trip to Vegas to commemorate Chieh-Heng’s death, Wu Yi-Hsiang asks his friend Ming-Heng whether he’d choose the same path again, from grueling preparations for exams in high school to their miserable jobs. Ming-Heng says yes, acknowledging that nothing about their lives would change. This obstinacy is one of the book’s great puzzles. It seems that in the depths of despair, they have seen something about the world that they would not wish to unlearn. The book opens with a suicide, but it ends with another character’s choice to go on living: to bear patiently the burdens of their fate, but also to bear the memory of the beloved, like a bullet in a glass case that will never tarnish.