The 2010 documentary Catfish reminded us how frighteningly easy it is to stalk a stranger in this digital age. The film’s protagonists meet a young lady online and quickly become obsessed with her. In no time at all, they manage to collect plenty of personal information — including satellite photos of her house.

It is precisely this sort of digital interplay between intimacy and distance, privacy and surveillance, passion and danger, that takes center stage in The Secret Talker, the latest novel by Geling Yan. This first English translation of the novel, beautifully rendered by Jeremy Tiang, provides Anglophone readers the opportunity to read one of China’s bestselling female novelists.

The book’s protagonist, Hongmei Qiao, lives a comfortable life in San Francisco, California. She met her American husband, Glen, as a young student back in China, where he taught her English class. (Her youth in China is revealed through a series of increasingly tense flashbacks.) When she receives an email from a stranger — a secret admirer — she is launched into a psychological drama, equal parts intrigue and introspection. 

The stranger claims to have been watching Hongmei from afar. This “Secret Talker” describes Hongmei’s daily activities in frightening detail: the clothing she wears, her trips to the store. While she finds this intrusion worrisome, the disturbing implications are quickly outweighed by the thrill of their increasingly intimate correspondence. Hongmei’s online relationship with this stranger evolves into a profound infatuation. The Secret Talker watches Hongmei incessantly, even while revealing little personal information in return, coyly concealing even their own gender. 

Despite this opaque secrecy — or perhaps because of it — Hongmei finds the interaction mentally, emotionally, and sexually stimulating. The narrator describes the appeal: “Every woman finds that a secret passion increases her ardor and warmth for her husband, and every lucky husband should thank his shadowy rival, whether real or imagined.”

Contemporary cyberspace offers myriad opportunities for such emotional infidelity. Peggy Vaughan, the author of The Monogamy Myth, defines this concept as “an emotional connection with someone of the opposite sex that you keep a secret from your spouse.” Such virtual affairs are treated casually by a startling number of people; Psychology Today cites one survey in which 60% of respondents did not consider cybersex to be infidelity.

Even as Yan’s novel explores the emotional tryst with a stranger, it also examines the nature of “serial monogamy.” Like so many neurotic patterns that we fall into, Hongmei’s love life follows a predictable cycle: from infatuation to romance, to stable commitment, to boredom and complacency, to infatuation with someone else. As she engages the potentially dangerous online stranger, she is reminded of the thrill of first meeting Glen; tellingly, their romance began in China while Hongmei was still married to her first husband. Her friend Nini, a shameless chaser of billionaires, takes this behavior to the next level.

Even as Hongmei’s drama is intensely personal, the narrative points at broader societal issues of privacy and surveillance. Some of the flashback scenes to her life in China are truly disturbing, particularly as the government intrudes into her love life. Hongmei is indecorously labeled as a threat to national security, simply for dating a foreigner. These flashbacks and the admirer’s leering gaze alike remind us all how commonplace surveillance has become in our lives, both in the United States and in China. Wherever we are, The Secret Talker is never far behind.

The Secret Talker

By Geling Yan, translated by Jeremy Tiang; HarperVia (2021)

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.