Justin Ker explores life's interstices
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
The Space Between the Raindrops
Presumably you've received the memo about our shortening attention spans. Media is being consumed in ever smaller sips Buzzfeed articles, Facebook statuses, tweets, YouTube videos, episodes of Criminal Minds, vines, snapchats and thus ever fragmenting our ability to pay attention to the drama of our own lives, much less the mental and physical perambulations of a Leopold Bloom. Hence, the decline of the novel and, depending on who you listen to, also entire literary cultures, the humanities, the academy, and any form of analysis or deep thinking. In this wholly unrigorous account, Alice Munro's Nobel Prize win (short stories), Amanda Lee Koe's Singapore Literature Prize win (short stories!), the rise of flash fiction, the still-burgeoning poetry scene in Singapore all these are symptoms of our goldfish-like state of affairs. (The other, better reason is the fall of the full-time writer. But this has, like the parrot astrologer and the street barber now, always been a rare occupation in Singapore.) Yet this account entrenches and privileges the novel, a fairly recent form in European literary history (as opposed to the lyric, for example). It is necessarily problematic in the literary histories of other cultures. It is also a form prone to defects, especially notable in its supposed Victorian heyday: the highly inflated word count, the padding, the lackadaisical plotting. (And as the late David Foster Wallace once provocatively asked: In its recent incarnation, has it not been largely a vehicle for the (straight, white) male ego?) Our age thus imperils but also harbours promise for prose. The peril, above. The promise? That there will be productive tension between our impatience and our undiminished need for stories. That this urgency will distil, purify and strengthen the prose of emerging writers: to leave out the guff, to sharpen their plotting, and to try out new forms.
Hence, thus, therefore (and we're still operating in the mode of wholly unrigorous history), we arrive at Justin Ker's The Space Between the Raindrops, a collection of short short stories (some might prefer the term 'flash fiction'). First off, a prescription on ambience: this book is best read during the monsoon season, when the rain is pounding at the windows and seeking desperate union with the sea, threatening to take the city with it. (The title's a hint.) Ker's forty-two stories feature an abundance of rain and water (there's a story simply titled 'Rain'): rain as predator, destroying and flooding; rain, specifically the water cycle, as evidence of non-linear, circular time; rain as a lens that smudges the city; water as silent witness to history; water as a mirror; women as water; water as memory; and of course, plain old rain as melancholic backdrop. Water, in Ker's stories, is an imperfect metaphor for time. It washes over, rinses, cleanses, sanctifies, damages, destroys and, ultimately, drowns. Ker, we read, is a doctor at the National Neuroscience Institute, with "a special interest in the injured brain and its damaged memories". No wonder then that time and memory, its deficient human transcription is Ker's overwhelming theme. His other is the human desire for connection, and its frequent failure. Ker's characters are often failed or spurned lovers, individuals doomed to be individuals.
Ker's scientific and medical learning is a surprising complement to the meditative moments in his work, allowing him to deepen his stories, and he draws upon that vocabulary extensively. "The human being is the only animal that requires rotating the axis of the body from vertical to horizontal to sleep," we are told in 'The Bed Thief'. In 'Falling Paper', it is observed that falling leaves, raindrops and paper are undoubtedly ephemeral, but also possess unique trajectories: "Each leaf that falls follows its own unique spiral path towards the ground, which no other leaf in the world shares." The bones of an old lady "are an accumulation of each weight she has carried in her life". ('Open Reduction Internal Fixation') Alzheimer's disease is used stunningly for a plot twist in 'The House that She Built'. Not every attempt to leverage upon this knowledge is successful, and sometimes their complexity means the scientific concepts translate poorly, and not enough is done to fully realise the metaphorical potential of the concepts. This is evident in the stories 'Julia Sets' and 'The Uncertainty Principle'. With regard to the latter, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has already been so widely circulated that it's almost a clichι, and a story exploiting the idea will have to be more inventive than Ker's. On the whole though, these attempts to use the scientific and the medical are successful, bringing the two cultures somewhat closer.
But Ker's main achievement isn't that he infuses stories with science and medicine. Even without these aids, his strength is in taking a second look at the small things that happen in everyday life, rethinking them, sometimes fashioning them as thought experiments. When we burn things for the dead, as part of Qing Ming rites, do the dead receive paper shoes as leather shoes? Or perhaps they "experience the dependable, annual disappointment at the paper that wrap[s] [their] feet", that will "only last days in the eternal walking of the underworld"? Ker then posits that
It is a pleasure seeing Ker's imagination at work. If two men have loved the same woman at different points in their lives (and her life), then surely the obvious conclusion is that
My favourite story of the collection, 'My Country as a Psychiatric Patient (Patient Notes Written on the 9th of August 2008)' is one that truly showcases Ker's strengths of familiarity with medical vocabulary, his harnessing of the imagination and his subtle, light-handed touch. This is a story many Singaporean writers would no doubt have failed to execute properly. The great temptation is to be heavy-handed with satire and cod-political commentary (evident in too much of Singaporean fiction), to the point of upending any measure of literary value. This reviewer feared the worst, but Ker does not, for a moment, drop the ball. The psychiatric analysis reads brilliantly, convincingly and yes, wickedly:
Justin Ker's diagnosis nails it, and 'My Country as a Psychiatric Patient' is, in its own way, an alternative history of Singapore that brings to light uniquely Singaporean pathologies. When Ker succeeds, there is a whiff of watered-down Borges, though rendered in a much more romantic vein. (This is not intended as an insult: nearly all of us would need dramatic scaling-up to be anywhere near the great Argentinian.)
Perhaps in revolt against the proliferation of grand narratives and portentous theses, the starting point (and in some cases, also the ending point) of Ker's stories is often the re-looked detail, the intriguing scientific or medical fact, the fraught moment, bristling with potentialities and significance. This willingness to jettison conventional patterns of narrative and explore different forms is Ker's other achievement. Many of the stories in the collection are simply snapshots of moments welded together and often, they work surprisingly well. The reader is left to construct the connections between these mini-stories. 'Bukit Gombak' is a good example of this, and what links the three sections together is sound: a shout, a sigh and a song. The piece is a meditation on the untold stories that lie behind seemingly insignificant sounds. Some of the pieces are actually just moments, like 'Three Ways of Talking', in which two NS boys have a conversation at a bus stop. Ker's strategy allows the reader to look closely at each moment, to savour its significance. Thus one of the NS boys, an Indian, has returned from America to do his national service and is trying to recover his Singlish to fit in:
Ker perfectly captures an increasingly common phenomenon: the third-culture kid serving national service, and the ambiguity and ambivalence that must surely accompany such a situation. It is a common situation, the switching of codes, but Ker's skill ensures that the moment is rendered in its full, subtle detail. (The story gets even better.) Ker shows a mastery of these small moments and from these small moments he is then often able to launch into his thoughtful meditations and imaginative leaps. Sometimes, he simply leaves them as they are, and allows readers to draw their own lessons and observations.
It would, however, be remiss of this black-hearted reviewer not to provide some reservations at the end of this review. Although the start of this review stated that Ker explores the need for human connection and its frequent failure, his duds are often found in precisely this area, particularly in stories where boy chases girl, obviously doesn't get her, and so let us start expounding some light philosophy. (To be fair, there were some perfectly competent in fact, very good pieces about men and women: I have not focussed on these as Ker's other stories seemed more interesting. It would also be impossible to cover all forty-two.) Towards the end of the book, stories of this variety were beginning to become indistinguishable from one another, and even starting to bore a little, to slide into romantic banalities, such as
This is one danger, then, that Ker might become a one-trick pony, churning out stories with the following elements: rain, orange lights, forgetting, phone numbers, memory, time, man, woman. In doing so, Ker would simply plumb the depths of sentimentality and mawkishness. This would be a tragic waste of talent. Ker's stronger stories are in fact his less obviously romantic ones. 'The Forgetting Shop' features a romantic failure, yes, but its strength lies in the ingenuity of the concept: that if there were a shop that sold familiar scents that reminded one of other people, it would also be a memory shop. And Ker moves on from there, in a characteristic imaginative leap, to suggest that there would also be a Forgetting Shop:
(Coffee beans are often found in bottles in scent shops, as they nullify the previous smell and allow the shopper to try out another scent with a fresh nose.) The other reservation has to do with the story 'Boy vs Boy (ACS vs RI)', an indulgent piece which discusses the different ways in which Anglo-Chinese School boys and Raffles Institution boys court girls. This piece might have been fine for a humorous Facebook note, but in this collection it feels out of place. This is not the only reference to elite school rivalries (the story 'Facebook' has another), and one hopes Ker does not write any more stories along this line: it is a narrow topic, of even narrower interest (this reviewer is an alumnus of one of the schools).
These reservations aside, The Space Between the Raindrops is an assured, promising debut, with an accomplished style mostly free of infelicities that have plagued other debuts. Ker's stories focus on moments that break up the merciless tide of time, giving us space and time to re-examine the significance of details, people and relationships. He teaches us to view the world in new, ingenious ways, and that the transience of things demands that we pay attention to each second, and not allow time to simply wash over and somehow still leave us dry. Epigram must be commended for bringing another talented prose writer into print, on the heels of Amanda Lee Koe's Singapore Literature Prize win. We can only hope for even more, and even better. As Justin Ker shows, the literary challenges of our media-saturated age can surely be overcome. He has produced a collection that will draw in time-starved readers even bibliophobes and yet still please the litterateur. Quietly, away from the parties and congratulatory book launches of the poets, a strong suit of prose writers has been assembling, and Ker joins, as a contender, other names such as Lee Koe, Stephanie Ye, Dave Chua, Wena Poon, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and O Thiam Chin.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015