Singaporean globe trotters navel-gaze in Jeremy Tiang's elegant debut fiction collection
By Stephanie Ye
It Never Rains On National Day
According to a conversation I had with Epigram Books publisher Edmund Wee, this collection was initially titled Schwellenangst. The German compound word means "the fear of crossing thresholds, or boundaries", as defined by a character in the short story of the same title. A telling choice by Jeremy Tiang for his debut fiction collection: the UK-educated, New-York based Singaporean writer is well-regarded as a translator of Chinese works into English, and no doubt is much accustomed to having to surmount barriers both linguistic and cultural.
However, the publisher decided to rename the collection It Never Rains on National Day, on the grounds of marketability. This is a phrase that pops up in one of the eleven stories, and an idea alluded to a few times more. It's a title guaranteed to bring a knowing smile to a Singaporean reader's face: regardless of whether the government actually seeds the clouds in order to ensure clear skies on the big day, it is something we collectively believe, or like to believe.
My initial impression was that the new title was perhaps too cheeky, and too local, for the tone of the stories. This is a collection that opens with cosmopolitan flair and Teutonic weightiness. The Sophia of "Sophia's Honeymoon" is a certain sophisticated Singaporean type – educated in America, well-read, widely travelled, equipped with Western references and, in her particular case, a Western husband, a cool English banker from a background of "Covent Garden operas and visits to European capitals".
But although Sophia at first feels "that Europe has spread itself before her feet as if she were a Henry James heroine", she is soon afflicted with disaffection. During the Zurich stop of their honeymoon, as she finds herself in a place where she does not know the language, watching an opera she does not understand and, most crucially, living a life she is unprepared for, she has an episode of existential angst – or perhaps, more accurately, of schwellenangst. Looking back on that episode, an older Sophia will "wonder how she could have allowed herself to arrive there, but also feel a twinge of loss for the girl still capable of losing control… too busy fighting the rising panic to see that this might be the last moment she is fully herself."
Such moments recur again and again in the stories that follow. We return again and again to materially privileged yet spiritually disenfranchised characters: not just the same type of character, but literally the same characters. The first look at the contents page already reveals that Sophia is a recurring heroine: besides "Sophia's Honeymoon", there are stories titled "Sophia's Aunt" and "Sophia's Party". Then, in the fourth story, "Schwellenangst", a character refers to another character first introduced in the second story, "Trondheim", and we come to realise that all the stories are interlinked.
This is a pleasing development. It builds on the idea of boundaries crossed and uncrossed (or recrossed). It creates a mild anxiety, akin to that of solving a puzzle, as the reader meets each new character: have I met this character before; is this character the same character as that other character? We compile our list of dramatis personae. Besides Sophia, there is an unnamed teacher, whose angst over her scholarship bond sees her go on the lam in Europe and then North America; Joy, another teacher, less angsty; and Li Hsia, a poised government scholar with, of course, her own private angst. Each of these Singaporean women has her own issues; yet, one feels that they are all essentially of the same background and personality mould. As Calvin, another recurring character who first appears in "Trondheim", puts it: "The pretty ones in the arts stream who giggled and whispered to each other during their Maths lectures, if they went to Maths lectures. In their spare time, they read a lot of Sylvia Plath and wrote indifferent poetry for the school magazine." But although they are all of a type, it is a charming type, and Tiang has a knack for making each one of them believable.
The men are somewhat less compelling characters, although more varied in type. Calvin is a Singaporean engineer, complete with the requisite ballpoint pens in pocket and social incompetence. There is also an unnamed American writer, also socially incompetent; and lastly, Nicholas, Sophia's English husband. Nicholas is the only convincing male character, especially when we get to see beneath his apparently invulnerable exterior in the latter Sophia stories. Calvin, though insightful at intervals, is too stereotypically maladroit to buy into, while the unnamed American is just bland.
On the whole, Tiang has put together an elegant and engaging collection. He depicts the Westernised middle class of Singaporean society with convincing insight, and no little humour. The Singaporean characters, all linked by various degrees of separation, are a privileged yet alienated lot. They have experienced much of the world – there are stories set in Switzerland, Norway, the United States, Germany, China, Canada, and Thailand – yet they always seem to be viewing it from an ironic distance (Sophia is not the only one to compare her situation to something out of fiction). They are all multi- or at least bilingual, yet have difficulty connecting with others in any kind of language. They were brought up to seize the best of both worlds, but end up staying on the threshold. Significantly, many of the stories conclude with a literal change in the protagonist's state of consciousness: a good six out of the eleven stories have someone fall asleep; two involve a climax where the disoriented protagonist wanders around a strange city in a hysterical haze. All this can feel a bit repetitive – how many times can you end a story with someone falling asleep? – but there is also the sense that this repetition is deliberate. Always, there is an attempt by the character to cross a boundary; but like waves, they surge forward only to fall back.
But now I will be picky and examine what I feel are the two weak stories in this collection. In discussing what they lack, I hope to highlight why the rest of the stories work well, both as individual stories and as a collection. It is no coincidence that these two stories are the only ones set outside our incestuous Singaporean social circle. The third story in the collection, "Tick", sees the unnamed American writer attempt to defeat writer's block by retreating to a cabin in a forest. A chronicle of one man's insecurities, self-loathing, and identification with his tick-ridden dog, it works competently enough as a standalone short story, if a bit too much like the tedious product of a writer working through his writer's block. But it sits uncomfortably in the Singaporean milieu, feeling somewhat extraneous, and is only prevented from being totally irrelevant because the character turns up later in one of the other stories about a Singaporean.
The other story, "National Day", is told from the first-person plural perspective of a group of South Asian foreign workers, who are heading to St John's Island to watch the National Day fireworks from afar. This story is a well-intended, well-researched effort – in the acknowledgements, Tiang credits interviews done by social service organisation Transient Workers Count Too – but the subject's remove from the author's own experience is apparent. The choice to use the collective voice excuses the writer from having to go into the specifics of any particular character's life, of having to actually inhabit the mindspace of a foreign worker. The characters' reflections are generalised, generic – how much they've suffered to be here in Singapore, how much they miss home – and are filled with too-pointed observations: that the parade is "telling some version of a story that doesn't include us", that the fireworks "are not for us". Tiang probes at the boundaries of our instinctive sympathy for foreign workers, but never truly manages to bring us over into empathy. It reads more like a creative writing exercise one of the Singaporean characters might do, one of the pretty girls taking a break from her indifferent poetry.
Yet, this being said, "National Day" is an important link in this collection, in a way that "Tick" isn't. It feels obligatory, but it is obligatory for a reason: these foreign workers are just as much a part of Singapore as our mostly-Chinese-Singaporean middle-class gang; yet their stories are always omitted as Singaporeans indulge in globe-trotting, navel-gazing searches for their souls.
In an almost novelistic manner, the narrative drive of the collection gathers momentum during the last three stories. "Meatpacking", "National Day" and "Sophia's Party" all take place on August the 9th, and it is not a stretch to imagine that they all take place on the exact same National Day, that the stories are happening simultaneously. It is at this point that the new, marketable title of the collection starts to resonate. In "Sophia's Party", at one point Sophia is telling her friends the story of a certain event, which I won't reveal here but which is an obvious analogy of a founding story. This leads Nicholas to reflect: "…he must admit that her version of events is more engaging… the story is as good an organising principle as any to make sense of their lives".
As we follow a Singaporean adrift in New York, the foreign workers on St. John's, Sophia and Nicholas in their Tanjong Pagar flat, all of them observing National Day in their own ways, the title no longer reads as something half-hilarious, half-cynical, but as something wistful, even wilful. The point, Tiang seems to be saying, is not whether or not the government really carries out cloud seeding: the significant thing is that Singaporeans believe we are the type of country that would attempt to control the rain, and that we are the type of country that would actually succeed. For better or for worse, such arrogance and confidence are part of our national narrative; and it is the stories we tell ourselves, and about ourselves, that keep us going, testing and defying the boundaries of our lives.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016