Grasping at Shadows
O Thiam Chin's vivid imagery needs greater definition
By Jolene Tan
Love, Or Something Like Love
Love, Or Something Like Love, the fifth collection of short stories from O Thiam Chin, certainly has ambitions. It runs its hands over death, cruelty, madness, grief; and while its touch is generally a smooth one, and in places sensitive, I came away feeling that too often the stories had held something back, or moved at too approximate a level, only ruffling the surfaces of their intended themes.
In some ways, the dynamic of the first story — 'The Cat that Disappeared' — is also that of the collection. As 'Cat' opens, narrator Lee Ching walks through a new neighbourhood, exchanging smiles with a young mother; nearby, children play; the mother busies herself with a milk bottle; the children run off, laughing, revealing a burnt, dismembered pigeon; the mother glares at the narrator.
So one page in and already we can trace tensions and connections between joys and malice, between everyday pleasantries and everyday sadism. A few paragraphs gesture at a sort of hidden iceberg of human impulses. And the powerful visual of the pigeon's fate marries O's filmic sensibility to a kind of ruthless relish, a combination which achieves quite an impact both later on in 'Cat' and in the rest of Love (when Lee Ching finds her dead father's lips have been chewed off by his cat, for instance; or the narrator of 'A Lost Boy' catches, through a "gap in the door", a momentary glimpse of her grandson jerking off to pornography). The writing has a promising economy.
But 'Cat' does not follow through on this beginning. It presents suggestive entanglements between violence and biology, but the reader is not taken beyond the fact of entanglement. The reason for this seems to have something to do with the distance between the level of detail given to brutality and delusion on the one hand and, on the other, this rather colourless description of how Lee Ching tries to constructively process her father's mental illness:
Those stories and that meaning are said to exist, but they seem to take no shape in Lee Ching's reflections or her father's story. Where her father is humanised, such as in his connection with his cat, this seems to be sealed off from his mental illness. Why hint at commonly overlooked lived experiences of schizophrenia — only to ignore them once more? Perhaps O aims merely to present a sense of the mystery of hardwired violence; but it seems both ethically problematic and artistically limiting to use (only the commonly caricatured dimensions of) schizophrenia as a metaphorical prop for this.
'A Lost Boy' likewise operates through shadowy hints about sexuality and aggression that do not quite resolve into a coherent picture. The narration is engaging enough but the narrator ultimately unconvincing. In one sentence she is refreshingly unembarrassed about her own youthful experiences of desire and pleasure — "I was living for it" — and in the very next she articulates a vague, soap-operatic moralism on her daughter's "excessive sex" (which means what, exactly?). And throughout she affects wilful ignorance or denial about the obvious evidence of her grandson's sexual activity. These things do not hang together to form a character. I suspect O means this to be complexity rather than carelessness — his seeking to explore an individual's conflicted relationship with sexuality, especially in view of the narrator's complicity in a serious instance of sexual assault. But, if so, something more is needed than simply stringing these contradictions together — the reader needs to see some greater architecture which shows how they are housed with one another.
Despite their flaws, 'Cat' and 'Boy' are some of the more interesting entries in the collection. The middle sags with forgettable meditations on mortality. Love's low point is undoubtedly 'Swordsmen', in which a man has a sword run through his shoulder ("the blade appearing at his back") and responds with the sort of anatomically baffling slapstick sequence that can only be explained as the brainchild of too many bad action movies:
It is a struggle to accept that the human body works this way. Assuming the uninjured arm wields the sword, how can the other hand grip its own (ruined) shoulder well enough to "staunch the bleeding"? (Go on, try it: I'm doing this repeatedly in front of my computer and am left none the wiser.) A page later, "a quick swing of the sword divided the man's left arm from his body". Technically possible, I suppose, but by now the image is inevitably comedic — not the tone the otherwise earnest story seems to intend to convey.
Love also contains a few infelicities of language, often of the over-explanatory sort. ("Boisterous and attention-drawing" laughter made me wince.) But, to be fair, that is an exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the writing went down easily with me, and O produces a number of strong, punchy visuals, such as the "platoon of ants marching the breadcrumbs to and fro" ('Third Eye'), or the effective but awful vision that some johns of 'The Verdict' share, having exploited a minor sex worker:
The most successful parts of the collection step back a little from attempts at life-and-death grandeur to tell more domestic but stronger, more complete, stories. In 'The Years', closeted married man Liang turns up at his first and only gay social with an uncertain Tupperware offering, and notes that "there were already three types of curry laid out". This wry detail is synthesised into his misfit's life of quietly twined desire and regret, with more wholeness and deftness than the other entries in the collection display. Likewise, 'At the Suvarnabhumi Airport' succeeds in curling an amused lip at marital betrayal. Love wasn't a bad experience as it was, but I would have preferred to read a volume which more consistently showed the same level of control as these stories.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014
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