Jolene Tan's first novel crashes and burns
By Toh Hsien Min
A Certain Exposure
First books are fraught with danger. That first appearance before the world is like the take-off and initial climb of commercial aircraft: the first two percent of the flight accounts for thirty percent of all commercial flight fatalities, yet if the plane never gets its wheels off the ground, it never gets anywhere. The skill of it is in securing every aspect of the flight before the point of lift-off, which is why you don't send a rookie pilot with half a dozen flight hours into the cockpit of an A380. It's the same with writing. One view on the matter, attributed to John D. MacDonald, is that writers have one million words of crap in them before they can create work original to them.
Evidently, Jolene Tan is reasonably well-read, but there is a huge difference between having read hundreds of millions of words and having actually worked through writing those first million words. Consequently, the accident investigation of the novel that is A Certain Exposure faces the difficulty of deciding where to start: the flaps were up, the rudder pedal had been applied, and the plane began too far up the runway. What didn't go wrong?
Perhaps that's the place to start. There are occasional good moments in the novel, albeit in "bits and pieces" and "in no very organised fashion" besides, oddly enough, suggesting the plane crash analogy:
Moreover, the novel offers an unabashed nostalgia trip for everyone who went to junior college and university in the 1990s. It brings back Nintendo, Discmans, Cool Britannia, a sepia-tinted time: "Once or twice they played Uno or Monopoly, and sometimes they watched SBC 8 dramas and afternoon cartoons in companionable silence"; this nostalgia has the veneer of authenticity to it.
Unfortunately, the good moments are drowned out by the poor ones. Errors abound (italics are mine):
The former instance of ignorance of the difference between transitive and intransitive is found in the very first sentence of the book, mind — surely it's all up from there? Au contraire — by the time of that last inexplicable oasis of present tense unable to be consistent with relative time even in the present, let alone to make sense in a novel otherwise entirely in the past tense, the reader who has persisted this far must surely be resigned to overlooking these mishaps.
However, it would take much more generosity to overlook the style, which is all elbows and knees, its tortuous sentence structures and affected vocabulary giving a sense of trying too hard ("Only injustice towards others precipitated her latent feelings into solid rage"). Point of view is treated like a ping-pong ball, bouncing from character to character as much as the narrative bounces around in time. The choice to be an omniscient narrator is an especially poor one, because Tan appears to assume that her knowledge of everything going on in her characters' heads ought to be the reader's knowledge. Oddly enough, the effect is — besides showing a novelist not in control of her text — to alienate the reader from the characters, which comes on top of their being a collection of stereotypes so flat even the characters identify one another as stereotypes ("it's always the same smug Ashford scholar lot… and they'll all go back and mingle incestuously in the civil service, thinking they've now seen the world"). Authorial intrusion is especially irksome. Tan keeps telling us about irrelevant things that have happened in a time far into the future of the incident being described:
And even when this time travel is not in play, there remains a suspicion that the characters are smugly navel-gazing on behalf of the author: "But Hwee Leng had too much self-regarding nostalgia to let that interfere with the set piece in her head" is particularly telling. Speaking of telling, the inability to properly build dramatic scenes may have been a factor behind not wanting to:
Except that here, "everything" stands for its precise opposite. Perhaps this is to be encouraged; more of this and A Certain Exposure might have been less torturous — by dint of being shorter.
(One particular aberration of style deserves special mention. Unlike in non-fiction, academic papers or, for that matter, literary criticism, fiction doesn't get to enjoy the cop-out of putting things in parentheses. It has no concept of 'you may wish to know' or 'for the technically inclined reader'. The novelist needs to decide whether or not something is significant straight off the bat. As such, absent some avant garde application, the over-frequent use of parentheses, as here with eighteen instances in the first twenty pages alone, marks an inexperienced writer. Just for example:
Stop hitting us with a blunt stick. The choice of car already tells us what we need to know.)
I would summarise the story had there been one. No, really. Okay, I'll try. Boy kills himself. Investigation ensues, via backstory. Conclusion: society is screwed up.
So, if the language isn't great and the style is clumsy and there's no story to speak of, what would anyone read A Certain Exposure for?
Without putting too fine a point on it, I suppose there might be an audience that enjoys being moralised to, or perhaps that believes it is already on the right moral high horse. How many issues can a writer cram into one novel? Let's do a count: there's the racism issue, the elitism issue, the capitalism issue, the Christian issue, the teenage intimacy issue, the rape issue, the bullying issue, the misogynist issue and, for good measure, both the gay and lesbian issues. Chia Thye Poh is namechecked, along with Vincent Cheng and the Marxist conspiracy (by one of the novel's teenagers, no less). Tan clearly disapproves of many of the positions taken up by her characters on these issues and wishes to satirise them, but if it is possible to stereotype characters, it's as easily possible to stereotype issues, and the upshot is that many of these come across as so dull ("And then, of course, the newspaper cuttings…") as to be not worth attention.
Overall, this makes the novel feel like an attempt to assert left-wing liberal credentials for the sake of being left-wing and liberal, not because of having anything urgent or original to say. "Sometimes people are their own worst enemies", says one of the civil servants in an especially bad set piece. Indeed: this has gone beyond preaching to the converted to the point of preaching to inadvertently unconvert the converted — it made this Guardian reader feel a little queasy, only stopping from reaching for a copy of the Times of London by wondering if the novel is quintessentially Singaporean because of that Singaporean inability to get the chip off the shoulder.
I don't take joy in looking through smouldering wreckage, but I have felt the urgency to file this report because Singapore literature will never get where it wants to be unless the community — publishers, editors, critics, readers and, yes, writers — keeps raising rather than lowering the bar. To this end, the epigraph from Doris Lessing situated at the start of the novel is spot on: "what's terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate".
Let's not be terrible.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014