Sympathy for the Soul
Doubt and existential torment are treated gently in debut novel
By Wong Wen Pu
Given the self-reflexivity which marks the present age, with everyone so clever and ironic and incredulous, it is a remarkable and courageous thing for a writer to write sincerely about something as mawkish and kitsch as 'the soul'. How does a writer, in this age of scepticism, run with something so ineffable, naïve and unscientific, so contrary to the postmodern zeitgeist? This is the problem Daryl Qilin Yam poses for himself in Kappa Quartet – to write as honestly and vulnerably of the soul as he can – and on this, he delivers splendidly.
Let us begin with the story. A young Singaporean, Kevin, awakens after a holiday in Japan to the fact that he was born without a soul. Curious, and perhaps wistful, he embarks on his quest to steal a soul, to find out what it would feel like "to hold a soul in [his] own hands". Following this, the narrative segues into the individual stories of various characters, from whose point of views subsequent, seemingly discreet, events are told. We encounter a lonely kappa (Japanese river demon) with a taste for nabe (hotpot), an award-winning writer with writer's block, and a youthful trio caught up in a love triangle. These characters' lives unfold before us, and we come to learn that even though Kevin is the one without a soul, everyone is damaged in some way: Haruhito Daisuki, a "specialist" from Japan, realises "how alone [he] was in this world, and how that loneliness had been a result of the things [he] had done to [him]self", while Sugimura, a divorcee and geologist, regretfully notes that he "had failed at being a father once, and that failure had left a void in [his] life". For Yam, these are souls in one way or another atrophied, worn down by a lifetime of living in this vale of tears.
This is a dark vision of our existence in this world, but Yam is immensely sympathetic to his characters. There is a warmth emanating through the clear brightness of the prose, even in the darkest moments, as we see in this scene where Kevin watches, moments before his death, a waitress serve diners in a cafe at dinnertime:
The comfort here is seductive, almost redemptive. But this warmth is undercut with sorrow as we never quite forget that almost every character we've met in this in this novel are in their own way broken, or has been touched by tragedy in some way, or that Kevin is never saved, and dies a few pages later. Yam never allows us to forget that warm moments like these are brief cracks of lights between two eternities of darkness, and for the rest of the time we may, only in our abjection, soldier on. The sympathy and warmth borders on pity, and renders his dark vision all the more acute.
Yam's greater achievement in Kappa Quartet, however, is the rhetorical strategy he uses to convince us of his idealistic premise that souls are real, and to build the novel upon this premise. We are told, quite simply, when Kevin's missing soul was first mentioned, that it is "something nobody should be losing". We are never told what a soul really is, or what it does. This is a world where there is greater perturbation at its stated absence of a soul than the assertion of its metaphysical existence. For Yam, there is no question that souls are real, and his good faith disarms our cynicism. Steered by his straight-faced sincerity, we simply accept that in his world, broken souls are what most of us are made of.
Now, if I've emphasised my admiration of Yam's earnestness regarding such an unlikely and difficult subject as the soul, I do not mean to say that he skips the postmodern games altogether. They are there, if one cares enough to look carefully. In one early scene, an auxiliary character, Ms Neo, presciently rues her existence over beer and a heart-to-heart talk with a colleague:
Shortly after this comment, Ms Neo wanders off to whatever nebulous space it is characters go when their stories are not being told. But crucially, this self-reflexive gesture is embedded in the narrative so discreetly and appropriately, and Ms Neo's comment so genuinely captures the ennui she feels, that one almost overlooks the meta-textuality of the comment. This is a subtle bit of craftsmanship that drives home the emotional point of loneliness and disenchantment of characters in the novel, yet also remains quietly committed to an experimental vision. I only wish Yam had been as reserved with the 'Notes and Acknowledgements' section of the book, where he might have, instead of making his sources and intertextual references known, kept the trail alive and open-ended for us, so that we, his readers, might have had the pleasure of seeking them out in the dark woods for ourselves...
As an undergraduate in an introductory Singaporean literature class some years ago, I remember leafing through If We Dream Too Long, Fistful of Colours, and Poets, Priests and Prostitutes. I remember wondering at the time: Why are all these novels so realist, so sociopolitical? Thus it has traditionally been with the Singaporean novel: afflicted and self-absorbed. But now, with Kappa Quartet, we are seeing a different sort of Singaporean novel altogether. As Amanda Lee Koe points out in the front matter of the novel, Kappa Quartet pushes against both the traditional form and content of the typical Singaporean novel, and "teases the perimeters of what a Singaporean novel can be". Even as the novel gently follows local literary tradition in the satirising of our social disaffections and idiosyncrasies (at one point reminding us that Singapore is a land of renovations, with things "constantly torn down and built again", at another point poking fun at the government's penchant to turn anything mildly exciting "into a tourist spot or something"), Yam breaks new ground in Singaporean writing with his exploration of what it means to live in this weary world, to be human, to possess (or not possess) a soul. Weaving the stories of his characters into an intricate mosaic of love and yearning and heartache and loss and death and everything else intrinsically meaningful, Kappa Quartet is a shimmering and poignant novel, an immensely sympathetic and humane exploration of our existential condition.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016