Collection highlights little-known area of Arthur Yap's work
By Laremy Lee
Noon at Five O' Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap
Edited by Angus Whitehead, an assistant professor of English literature at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, Noon at Five O' Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap is a volume of eight short stories that comes on the back of The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap (NUS Press, 2013) (also reviewed in this issue of QLRS). Both volumes arrive eight years after Yap's passing — a timely reminder of the 1983 Cultural Medallion winner's contribution to Singapore's arts scene in a milieu currently predisposed to lauding the "pioneer generation".
While Yap's poetry is synonymous with the Singapore literary canon, it is the mention of his short stories that pulls the reader up short: the average literature reader in my generation, and later, is probably unaware that Yap wrote fiction. Thus, kudos must go to Whitehead for his imagination and insight in tracking down and putting together this volume, so that the breadth of Yap's talents can be fully appreciated by a wider audience.
On first glance, it is easy to be deceived by the size of this softcover; it is petite, but packs much "pressure per square inch", the expression Whitehead is wont to use in his preface and introduction, to refer to the weightiness of Yap's words. And, in the same way that diamonds are created, the intense pressure and tension packed within each of Yap's stories has resulted in some wonderful gems.
The eight stories, presented in chronological order, can be divided into three distinct movements, evident through the similarity of style, tone and theme at the time each story was published.
The first movement comprises the foremost three stories: the titular 'Noon at Five O' Clock' (1962), 'A Five-Year Plan' (1962), and 'A Silly Little Story' (1964). Written in the early stages of Yap's literary career, the pieces in this movement are distinguished by the extreme detachment the speaker possesses in each story.
For example, in the character descriptions from 'A Five-Year Plan': "He was a young man when he met her; and she, though not exactly pretty, was quite presentable in their circle of friends", and "The child they had, the only one, was quiet and highly manageable". Here, frugal language is used in generic portrayals of nondescript characters, almost as though the speaker were desperately disassociating himself from such commonplace creatures, with whom connections are impossible to make. This generates a humdrum and hopeless atmosphere that encapsulates the ploddingly routine and mundane lives the characters inhabit, and which prompts the reader to be further disconnected from such uninspiring lives.
Another aspect in which this movement can be distinguished from the others: the seeming lack of a conclusion, in the narrative style and technique that readers are used to. Yap ends 'A Silly Little Story', a possible allegory of tensions between tradition and modernity in soon-to-be independent Singapore, with these two lines: "Wong Loo was just plain and simply tolerant, and that was perhaps his saving grace. Therefore, a lot of things, big and small, did not irk him at all". Though the assonance of "small"/"all" evokes the idea of a rhyming couplet, suggesting closure, it serves as a jarring counterpoint to the rest of the story. The implication: it is more chilling than "silly"; when change is a constant, the stasis of the protagonist suggests a possible extinction of everything the protagonist stands for or symbolises.
The second movement, if it may be called as such, stands on its own. 'Soo Meng' (1970), about an intellectually disabled child, is markedly different from Yap's other stories. Stylistically, it is more experimental. The use of ellipsis and disjointed narration — as suggested through alternate punctuation — of "But three months, half a year, one year … was the child still such a tiny baby? not strong?" is novel, and parallels one of the themes of the story: changing societal perceptions in a changing age.
The conclusion of the story is as abstract as the syntax and form of the writing is:
Like the technical aspects of the writing, the conclusion is bizarre. Nevertheless, it reiterates the peculiar instability and tension within the shifting boundaries and norms of a modern era, as represented by the shielded and protected Soo Meng's emergence into a brave new world fraught with danger.
The third movement comprises the final four stories of Yap's oeuvre: 'The Effect of a Good Dinner' (1978), 'None the Wiser' (1978), 'The Story of A Mask' (1978) and 'A Beginning and a Middle Without an Ending' (1982; revised 1993). This set of stories demonstrates Yap's growth as a writer, apparent in Yap's use of effective figurative language and narrative technique, and exemplified in 'None the Wiser'.
In this story, Yap employs weather metaphors to describe characters and their relationships, and the motif of the "red sash" to symbolise tradition, culture, familial ties and filial piety, among other ideas. In the conclusion, when the mother asks her eldest son a pointed question, the dramatic irony further highlights the tension within the Tan family in the story.
While the short stories shine in their own right, they are diamonds in the rough, in need of a good editor to polish them to perfection — or, at least, not to obscure them, thereby dulling their shine, as was done to 'Ending', the final story. Written in 1982, 'Ending' was revised in 1993 when it was included in an anthology. In Noon at Five O' Clock, Whitehead presents the 1993 version, with footnotes to show the difference between this version and the original.
'Ending' depicts the worst side of human nature — the immense selfishness that humans can possess — expressed through the sibling rivalry between Elaine and her sister, Betty. At some point in the story, Elaine slaps Betty for embarrassing her in front of her friends, and this is what happens next (the 1982 original and the 1993 revision are shown side by side for the reader's comparison):
It is unclear why the word "later" is removed from the 1993 revision. Its original inclusion hints at Yap's conscious employment of anadiplosis, or the literary device that describes the repetition of "later" in this portion of the text. Here, it can be argued that the word was included to act in the same way a fulcrum does; its placement enhances the reader's comprehension of the consequential magnitude of Elaine's blow to Betty.
Without the context of the 1993 anthology, it is hard to understand why the editor then chose to make this omission. Nevertheless, it highlights the difference an editor, who is sensitive to such literary nuances, makes — especially when it comes to making, or breaking, a story. It also points the way forward for Singapore literature: as Noon at Five O' Clock indubitably serves to celebrate and commemorate a literary titan with a distinguished past, the National Arts Council and book publishers must commence or enhance the training of good editors who will be the Gordon Lishs to our Raymond Carvers, in order that we groom the Arthur Yaps who will inscribe our future.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014